Escape your life for a little while — come play in mine.

Businesses and Civil Rights

Posted by Lissa on November 20, 2008

I admit, when I read that eHarmony had been convinced to offer same-sex dating services, I thought it was a good thing.  Then I read a few lines farther and realized that “convinced” is probably not the right word:

The Pasadena-based dating website, heavily promoted by Christian evangelical leaders when it was founded, has agreed in a civil rights settlement to give up its heterosexuals-only policy and offer same-sex matches.

EHarmony was started by psychologist Neil Clark Warren, who is known for his mild-mannered television and radio advertisements. It must not only implement the new policy by March 31 but also give the first 10,000 same-sex registrants a free six-month subscription. [snip]

The company said that Warren was not giving interviews on the settlement. But attorney Theodore Olson, who issued a statement on the company’s behalf, made clear that it did not agree to offer gay matches willingly. “Even though we believed that the complaint resulted from an unfair characterization of our business,” Olson said, “we ultimately decided it was best to settle this case with the attorney general since litigation outcomes can be unpredictable.”

The libertarian in me thinks that every owner has a right to run his/her business as s/he sees fit.  The civil-rights supporter thinks back to Jim Crow laws and disapproves of discrimination towards customers on any basis.

In this case, the libertarian wins.

I find it distressing that a dating site set up by a person who “didn’t want to feature same-sex services . . . because he felt he didn’t know enough about gay relationships” was forced to provide such services on his site and grant a free trial into the bargain.  To me, it’s not whether gays have the right to use dating services — of course they do.  But there are a number of sites that offer that service — go here to see just a few.  So it’s not the question of whether those services are available; it’s the question of forcing a man who does not want his business to provide such a service, to do so.

I can’t agree with that.

As always, it’s a good idea to look at a hypothetical inversion and see whether it would pass muster.  Would Gay.com be forced to provide dating services for Christians who thought homosexuality was immoral?  How would that at all make sense?  They’d be told to get their own damn site, and rightly so.

Again, I don’t like the idea of businesses turning away customers for any reason stemming from skin color, gender, sexual preference, religious preference etc.  But I think it is their right.  If it’s a reason you think is immoral — e.g., a barbershop refusing to cater to blacks — feel free to write letters, picket, or in other ways try to convince the business it would be in their interest to change their policy.  Speak with your pocketbook.  Speak with your feet.  Don’t speak with your lawyer.

On the subject of barbershops — don’t forget that lawsuits and judicial fiat often have unintended consequences that don’t help anyone.  For example, in Collegetown, NC, where I went to Ye Olde Liberal Arts College, there was a barbershop that used to cater exclusively to black folks.  After all the lawsuits came down — remember, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg was a NC case — the barbershop catered to people of all colors.  Guess what?  The owner of the barbershop DID NOT LIKE THAT.  He’d made more money specializing in cutting the hair of black people; he did not want to offer broader services and cut white folks’ hair as well.  (Different technique, different tools, etc.)  As Thomas Sowell reminds us:

Far from existing from time immemorial, as many have assumed, racially segregated seating in public transportation began in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Those who see government as the solution to social problems may be surprised to learn that it was government which created this problem.

Many, if not most, municipal transit systems were privately owned in the 19th century and the private owners of these systems had no incentive to segregate the races.

These owners may have been racists themselves but they were in business to make a profit — and you don’t make a profit by alienating a lot of your customers. There was not enough market demand for Jim Crow seating on municipal transit to bring it about. [snip]

The incentives of the economic system and the incentives of the political system were not only different, they clashed. Private owners of streetcar, bus, and railroad companies in the South lobbied against the Jim Crow laws while these laws were being written, challenged them in the courts after the laws were passed, and then dragged their feet in enforcing those laws after they were upheld by the courts.

These tactics delayed the enforcement of Jim Crow seating laws for years in some places. Then company employees began to be arrested for not enforcing such laws and at least one president of a streetcar company was threatened with jail if he didn’t comply.

In this case, I may like the result — that gay folks have access to eHarmony, a popular dating site — but I can’t approve of the means, i.e., judicial fiat and fear of lawsuits.  The ends do NOT justify the means.

3 Responses to “Businesses and Civil Rights”

  1. +1

  2. Jeff said

    Well said. I agree 100%.

  3. totwtytr said

    I agree. It is antithetical to the intent of the founders of this country that a private firm or individual be forced to provide a service to anyone or any group that they find unacceptable.

    The First Amendment restrains Congress (thus the government), not individuals.

    Which is not to say that I agree with or condone discrimination of any kind. I’d just rather that the free market and public pressure be the controlling factors, not the courts or the legislature.

    If Company A doesn’t want to do business with Group B, then so be it. However, if Groups C through Z find Company A’s business practices unacceptable, then they can refuse to do business with them. Which will result in Company A either changing their policy OR going out of business.

    That’s the way things should work in the private sector, not the courts telling people who they have to do business with.

    The government, on the other hand, absolutely must not discriminate in either direction. Which brings up the whole affirmative action thing. That’s a post for another day.

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