Values in the Public Square

We need to defend each others’ rights, even when we disagree with how they’re being exercised. The widely-publicized firing of the Google employee for his memo about the differences between men and women is a good follow up to my post yesterday about religious freedom and living what we believe in the public square.

Freedom of religion is related to the freedom of association. Our Constitution recognizes the right to associate with others in a way that expresses our convictions. This is a right for all Americans, not just Christians—but Christians no less than anyone else. Everyone has values, whether they’re informed by religion or other ways, and businesses have a right to apply those values in hiring and offering services. There are restrictions on that, and that’s part of the balance I discussed in my previous post that the law has always tried to achieve in protecting competing rights. And the formula has been restricting rights of association and religion as little as possible while seeking to protect the rights of other citizens. The bottom line is that businesses, whether owned by religious or secular people, have a broad right to apply their values, morals, and beliefs in their business.

The personal motto of Google’s owners is “Don’t  be evil.” They’re moral relativists, so they’re going to define “evil” in a subjective way. That’s their right, and they apply their values in their corporate culture and employee policies. They believe their employee violated the values that are important at Google, so they fired him. We can disagree with their reasons, I certainly do, but they have a right to do this. We may disagree with the ways rights are exercised sometimes, but we cannot use those disagreements to challenge those rights.

Airbnb applied a new policy last year for their employees and also for their clients. They want to have a “welcoming community,” as they define it, and among the details is accepting people regardless of their sexual orientation or identity. For them, “accepting” means not making moral judgments on that basis. In applying that policy, they’re making a moral judgment about who they want as employees and clients. That’s okay—we can’t escape making moral judgments. It’s not just religious people who make moral judgments; secular people do, too. They have a right to do this. Notice, their policy applies to customers seeking their service, not only their employees. They decline their services on the basis of their values and convictions. Customers who disagree have to look for other options for service.

Business owners have the freedom, with very few restrictions, to apply their values to the way they do business. It doesn’t matter whether those values are informed by religion, atheism, or personal preference. But it’s only business owners whose values are informed by their religion that are being taken to court, whose freedom is being violated for applying their convictions in their businesses. Google and Airbnb want the freedom to conduct business consistent with their convictions. It’s the very same freedom Christian business owners are trying to protect. 

Melinda Penner