No Room for Sanity at the Inn: Stifling Democratic Debate over Same-Sex Marriage

 
 

Democracy and common sense teach us to seek the truth by listening to one another. If we will not even provide a room for people who want to talk with one another because we do not like what they say, then democracy is impossible.

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When I was a junior in college and looking for a summer job to defray the next year's tuition, I answered an ambiguous ad in a newspaper and found myself selling high-quality pots and pans, china, and cutlery to unmarried working girls. It actually was a good job for a good company. I ended up selling $20,000 of merchandise in eleven weeks. My sales put me at number six among the college kids selling kitchenware up and down the eastern seaboard. My bonus was an all-expense-paid trip to Bermuda, with the company executives and about ninety of the other young peddlers.

We stayed at The Princess, a hotel in the country’s chief town of Hamilton. A posh hotel, that. We had a couple of business meetings, I suppose so as to count the trip as deductible from company expenses. Mainly we had free time. Some of the other students used it to go to one of the beaches at night for co-ed skinny dipping. Clearly, the sexual revolution was well underway. I don’t suppose we got any healthy marriages out of those four days.

When the Supreme Court struck down segregationist ordinances in the South, no one knew, or at least no one admitted, that freedom of association would ultimately be ruled unconstitutional. The Court said that certain businesses were in fact public “accommodations,” and therefore, though they were privately owned and operated, they warranted a special degree of public supervision. An “accommodation,” if it is to be distinguished from any business of any sort at all, must provide a service that accommodates a need that all human beings share, by virtue of our having the same kinds of bodies. We all need food and drink, clothing and shelter. We need somewhere to sleep when we travel. We need medical care when we are sick. We need someone to bury us when we die.

A hotel is the paradigmatic accommodation. It is meant for travelers, who are particularly vulnerable. It provides shelter, a bed, and food. Without hotels, the only people who would dare to travel would be those willing to sleep in tents or railroad stations, or under bridges. The elderly could never travel. Large groups of people could never travel. The hotel also provides large rooms for comfortable use by institutions intermediate between the isolated individual and the state: businesses, charities, guilds, political parties, families celebrating a reunion or a wedding, and so on.

What about Intellectual Diversity?

I bring these things up because several days ago Ryan Anderson, the stalwart defender of sanity in marriage law and social customs regarding sex, was told that he and the Bermudian organization that invited him for a conference would have to go somewhere else, if they could find somewhere else. “Immediately upon hearing of the nature of the meeting,” said the managers of The Princess, “we called the organization to explain that our policy is one that celebrates diversity and that the hotel is not a venue for anti-diversity discussions.”

Let the obvious irony sink in. “Diversity” here means no more than sexual indifference. It cannot mean diversity of moral belief, diversity of intellectual argument, or diversity of political recommendations for securing the health of marriage. The managers have made up their minds, and will tolerate no divergence from their single-minded policy. If Anderson and his conferees were meeting to discuss the advantages of a more liberal attitude towards cannibalism, I doubt that the management of The Princess would have batted a false eyelash. If Cecile Richards had wanted to hold a gala celebration of baby heads, One Billion Severed, the management of The Princess would have made sure they were served oysters and caviar. But alas, the conferees were convening only to reconsider some of the metastases of the sexual revolution. And their moral views were common to ordinary people of all political persuasions, within living memory.

Freedom of Association or Discrimination?

What shall we say about the right of the managers of The Princess to refuse service? Not about their duty to make good on their contract—that is a different matter. We are talking about causing a lot of people considerable trouble and cost; some participants were travelers from a long distance, with plane reservations, and schedules adjusted well in advance to make room for the conference. Thankfully they were able to find an alternative venue. Nevertheless, does a right view of freedom of association cover the hotel managers? I do believe in that freedom. For example, I believe what everyone in my country once took for granted: that owners of a hotel could deny service to unmarried couples, because they did not want to run “that kind” of business, or because they did not want to subvert the common good.

Of course, if you tried doing that now, in Bermuda or the United States, you would be hauled before a court on charges of discrimination—freedom of association be damned. If you accept that such charges are valid, if you deny to Mom and Pop Baptist their freedom of association, then The Princess certainly has no leg to stand on. On the other hand, if you do believe that freedom of association extends to the managers of a hotel, then, aside from the evil of breach of promise, the managers of The Princess have the legal right to be myopic, sex-addled, contemptuous of the Christian faith, and indifferent to the common good. Of course, this also means that Christian businessmen have the legal right to decline to promote what they believe to be destructive of the common good.

But that is not the end of the discussion. Take the case of a Christian baker who does not want to put her seal of approval upon sodomy. If you come to her shop and ask for a slice of apple pie, she serves you happily, regardless of politics or religion, whether you are Mother Teresa or the editor of The New York Times. You are there merely as a human being with an immediate human need. You are hungry. What you do with those calories after you leave her shop is not her business. But suppose you say to her, “We have just completed a porn flick and are having a cast party to celebrate it. We would like you to cater the party.” That is a different situation. She is not now serving somebody hungry. She is being invited to participate in an event—to lend her creative talent to the success of the event, one that celebrates something she believes to be gravely evil. Or suppose that you ask her to cater the mock-wedding of Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice, with a quartet-topped wedding cake appropriate for the occasion. Now you are compelling her to express herself on your behalf.

You are damning her both ways. You will sue her to the eyeballs, or you will compel her to do something she believes to be evil. That latter should be repugnant to any freedom-loving people.

Bakers, Hotel Owners, and the Spirit of Democracy

The conclusion a fortiori is inescapable. If you believe that The Princess, which really is an accommodation, should have the legal right to deny service to a group of people who are not celebrating anything but rather having a political, philosophical, and moral discussion, when such service is not special—no one is hanging out a banner reading “Welcome, Moral Realists!”—but rather in the ordinary course of the business, and when the managers profess no consistent body of beliefs that command their obedience, then still more should a mere baker have the legal right politely to refuse to help people celebrate something she cannot help celebrate without engaging in wickedness in her own right, as her faith teaches her. (Anderson made a similar point in his remarks, which you can read about and watch here.) I might add that most such Christians have attempted to redirect customers to businesses that would serve them, something which it appears The Princess has not done.

The Christians have asked for understanding from those customers and have not received it; the managers of The Princess have been defiant, not caring what Anderson and the pro-marriage Bermudians think. The Christians have not exposed their customers to public opprobrium, as their customers have done to them, and as The Princess has done to Anderson.

But does the reasoning hold in the other direction? As I have suggested, there are good reasons to doubt it. The managers of The Princess do not suggest that their consciences would be burdened with unconfessed evil if they allowed Anderson to speak about the harms of the sexual revolution. The event is not an act, such as a wedding. It does not derive its meaning from specific and identifiable actions, such as those that the stars of the pornographic film would have engaged in. It is not a post-euthanasia party. The conferees need a room to talk in, and that’s all. And the Princess is in the specific business of giving people rooms, without regard to what they say in those rooms.

And that brings me to the most troubling feature of this incident. If any business can be said to be an accommodation, a hotel certainly is. And if any business can be said to merit public oversight, so that it is open to everyone within the law, a hotel with large meeting rooms certainly is.

For democracy is not a technical matter of ballots and levers. It is a spiritual thing. It rests upon a trust in man’s capacity to seek the true, the good, and the beautiful by the use of his mind. But since the stock of reason and experience in any one human being must be limited, democracy and common sense suggest that we ameliorate our deficiencies by listening to one another. We allow people to try to persuade us. If, however, we say that we will not even give a room for people who want to talk with one another, because we do not like what they say, and if such a practice becomes common, then democracy is impossible.

And perhaps it is over. What is going on at our colleges suggests no less.

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of FaithHe has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

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