Two attorneys argued opposite sides in a debate on religious freedom bills Friday at the Columbia Basin Badger Club’s latest forum.
It was a timely discussion in light of recent controversy over such a bill in Indiana, as well as the legal case over alleged discrimination by Arlene’s Flowers in Richland.
Jill Mullins-Cannon, the founder of Justice & Equality Legal Services on Bainbridge Island, said business owners shouldn’t be able to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and the like, even if they’re acting on religious conviction.
In America, people have the right to expect that when they engage in secular activities — like shopping at a restaurant or a flower shop — “they will not have someone else’s religious beliefs imposed on them,” Mullins-Cannon said.
The ability to hold religious beliefs is absolute, she said, but “conduct remains subject to regulation for the protection of our society as a whole.”
David DeWolf, a professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, countered that there should be room in some cases for proprietors to opt out because of their faith, as long as customers are able to get the goods and services they need.
“From the time of the American Revolution, our country has recognized that strongly held religious beliefs, even when they required some accommodation by the rest of society, were something to be respected and preserved rather than resented,” DeWolf said.
In the Arlene’s Flowers case, a Richland flower shop owner declined to provide services for a same-sex wedding. A judge recently determined she broke the law by doing so.
When it comes to public businesses, “we can’t have individuals become the law of the land and say their personal beliefs get to become the law and usurp anti-discrimination law,” Mullins-Cannon said.
Mullins-Cannon, a lesbian, said restaurant employees shouldn’t be allowed to refuse her service because they don’t want to promote her lesbian family.
“I should never have to have my children experience that kind of shame, and as an individual I shouldn’t have to experience that kind of shame,” she said.
DeWolf supports anti-discrimination law with respect to things like service at a restaurant and walking into a store and saying, “I want to buy flowers,” he said.
But, “it’s different when you’re asking someone to do something that is more of a personal expression of belief — like writing a newspaper article or cutting hair,” he said.
“What Arlene’s Flowers is about is the participation of the florist in what she believed to be an expression of belief,” DeWolf said. “It was that to which she objected.”
He brought up an example of a pharmacist who feels Plan B emergency contraception is morally wrong.
“Should the pharmacist be forced to choose between practicing pharmacy or being eliminated from the profession because they refuse to do that one thing?” he asked.
“Is there anybody who is unable to get Plan B because of these conscientious objections by the pharmacists? If there’s no problem, then a solution that drums pharmacists out of business because they won’t do this one act is not appropriate,” DeWolf said.
It isn’t always easy to find other options, Mullins-Cannon said. In the case of flowers for a same-sex wedding, it might be tough in the Tri-Cities to find florists who are willing to participate.
“How many florists do you have to go to, if they all say no? How far should you be burdened? Should you have to get a florist from Seattle?
“Why can’t you be in your own (city) and get nonreligious services without discrimination?”
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