Commentary on Arizona’s recent bill that would have allowed merchants to discriminate against prospective customers has focused on bigotry and the transparent subterfuge of “religious freedom” to legitimize that bigotry.
Certainly laws should not condone bigotry. But there is another, and I think legally more important, reason why the governor of Arizona was right to veto the bill.
Readers may remember when African-American students entered a diner in Greensboro, N.C., many years ago and asked to be served. They were refused service and roughed up, but they eventually prevailed. This was only one of many such incidents.
The principle cited then was this: If a merchant offers a service to the public, then the merchant has an obligation to provide that service to the public.
Merchants benefit in many ways from publicly funded services, such as police and fire protection, and from inspection rules that assure the public of some level of confidence of safety and wholesomeness. They benefit from parking facilities, from zoning regulations and from many other publicly sponsored provisions.
These benefits come from public money, paid by all taxpayers irrespective of sex, race, national origin or sexual orientation.
There is, then, an implicit contract: Merchants who accept publicly paid benefits are obligated to serve the public. Period. Not the segment of the public that they prefer, but all the public.
Attempting to justify bigotry by hiding behind religious scruples is nonsense. A merchant who is too precious to serve the whole public needs to go out of business.
The Arizona bill would have violated this implicit contract. It’s easy to see that the veto was correct. And this argument can be used to oppose other such phony legislative attempts to legitimize bigotry.