The Corner

Politics & Policy

Freedom of Association for Me, but Not for Thee

Last week, fashion designer Sophie Theallet announed she would refuse to sell or donate clothes to the next first lady, Melania Trump. In an open letter, Theallet explained:

The Sophie Theallet brand stands against all discrimination and prejudice. . . . 

As an immigrant myself in this country, I have been blessed with the opportunity to pursue my dreams in the USA. . . . 

As one who celebrates and strives for diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles, I will not participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next First Lady.

Good for Theallet for appreciating the greatness of America — including her freedom to not sell her designs to the next first lady and to express her feelings in writing without fear of repercussions or persecutions from the government. Good for her to have immigrated to a country that allows her to sell dresses to one first lady and not to another.

But what about the people whose lives have been destroyed and whose reputations have been dragged through the mud by judgmental commentators or the media for refusing to bake a cake, cater food, or deliver flowers for a gay wedding? As Stephanie Slade at Reason reminds us:

I suspect Barronelle Stutzman, the white-haired grandmother who owns Arlene’s Flowers, feels the same way about her craft. But instead of assuming a live-and-let-live attitude on the matter, Washington state has systematically worked to destroy Stutzman’s business unless she agrees to take part in a celebration to which she is morally opposed.

As a Pew poll shows, America is divided on the issue of whether wedding-related businesses, such as caterers and florists, should be required to serve same-sex couples who want to marry, even if the owner of these establishments objects to homosexuality for religious reasons. The real question is whether those who think the government should force the owner of a business to provide a service for a gay marriage — even though they serve gay Americans in other circumstances — will remain consistent and say that this designer isn’t entitled to her choice.

I guess this is my chance to say that I thought Gary Johnson was absolutely wrong during the campaign to argue that the government should force a Jewish baker to bake a Nazi cake. While I agree with Johnson that there is a role for government to address a widespread refusal of service for things that are central to human flourishing — such as a business refusing to provide everyday food, medical services, or housing to a person due to race, religion, sexual orientation, or political views — it is my impression, however, that in spite of what some are claiming, there is no such widespread discrimination against gay marriages that justifies the government’s intervention. In fact, there are plenty of religious bakers who continue to cater gay weddings and make bouquets for the brides-to-be or grooms-to-be. There are also plenty of non-religious alternatives.

Now I wonder, if a large share of designers refuse to sell clothes to one particular family or one particular first lady, when does this start to qualify as widespread discrimination? I do not have the answer to this question nor would I know what my position would be as I am always very slow to call for government intervention. But I am interested in the liberals’ position on the issue.

Freedom of association or other freedoms covered in the First Amendment aren’t simply meant to protect you from someone else’s disapproving judgment. It is also meant to protect others from your judgment. The freedoms granted in the First Amendment are what make America so great. I have written a little about it here. Let’s hope it continues.