Is Discrimination OK?

When is it legitimate to discriminate, if ever?  Consider the following two issues, the first via the Grand Rapids Press, the second via the Traverse City Record-Eagle.  Post your comments below.

GRAND RAPIDS, Sept 15, 2011 — Cathy and Jefferson Seaver are atheists, and they said they liked the Christian preschool in Allendale Township, where they sent their son.

But when they tried to send their daughter there a couple of years later, they hit a snag.

A Center for Inquiry discussion in GR

The school required them to sign a statement of faith in God. Feeling it would be a lie, Cathy asked if she could opt out. The administrators said if they didn’t sign, the school would not enroll their daughter.

“That was clear discrimination, and it was very disappointing,” she told an audience Wednesday at the Center for Inquiry Michigan gathering at the Women’s City Club.

The nonreligious group caused a stir last month by buying space on a billboard along northbound U.S. 131 near Hall Street SW with the message: “You don’t need God — to hope, to care, to live, to love.”

TC approves anti-discrimination ordinance

October 5, 2010 

TRAVERSE CITY — Mary Van Valin grew emotional as she stood at a podium to address the Traverse City Commission.

Van Valin, a Peninsula Township resident who’s building a house on Webster Street in the city, urged commissioners to pass an ordinance that would outlaw discrimination against gays. Van Valin’s comments lasted less than a minute, but her voice brimmed with passion.

“I have a dream that this community will stand on the side of love, not fear,” she said Monday night.

Van Valin got her wish when the commission unanimously approved the ordinance. The packed commission chambers erupted in applause, tears and hugs when Mayor Chris Bzdok conducted the vote after more than an hour of public comment.

The ordinance, among other things, bans employers from discriminating against or firing employees because of their sexual orientation. It also prohibits landlords and housing facilities from turning away renters based on their sexuality alone.

Religious organizations are exempt from the ordinance, as are residents who rent out rooms in their single-family homes.

The vote brings a measure of closure to an issue that’s been debated for more than a decade in the city, though it’s likely not the final chapter. Opponents of the ordinance plan to circulate petitions and force a special election on the matter.

“We’ve already started; we knew this was going to happen,” city resident and opponent Paul Nepote said of the vote.

The city’s Human Rights Commission drafted the ordinance to “close the gap” in existing civil-rights laws. Federal and state laws provide protection based on religion, race and host of other criteria, but sexuality is left out.

Cities across the state and nation are beginning to introduce local ordinances that address the issue. Traverse City’s new ordinance was patterned after a similar measure adopted last year in Kalamazoo.

A huge crowd gathered Sept. 7 when commissioners introduced the ordinance, and many of the same faces arrived Monday. Proponents said the ordinance will make the city more welcoming and provide necessary protection for gays, but opponents charged that such measure is immoral and isn’t needed.

City resident and business owner Jeff Judway said he was harassed by co-workers and eventually fired from a city business not long after they discovered he’s gay. He warned commissioners against believing the ordinance isn’t needed.

“This ordinance, I need it, we need it … nobody should be fired because of their sexual orientation.”

Gay city resident Jacob Hines, 19, suggested the measure is especially important to young gay people.

“I want to be able to grow up knowing my future is protected,” he said.

Opponent Mike Mulcahy previously told commissioners the measure could create headaches for employers, but seemed to focus his comments on religion this time around.

“There’s a lot of people who are opposed to this ordinance who have a good reason to be opposed to it, they’ve got a view of the planet that includes a higher power,” he said.

Bzdok addressed the complaints he’d heard about the ordinance in recent months, including a charge that it would hurt business owners.

“If there’s evidence out there about a negative impact on business in any of the other Michigan cities that have passed these, I would like to see that … the opponents of this ordinance have brought us no evidence that there’s an actual negative impact on business anywhere that’s done this, and I would argue the places that have done this are thriving,” he said before the vote.

Bzdok also said the city won’t be going on a “witch hunt” to ensure compliance with the ordinance and that the measure does nothing more than assure gay individuals the same rights as everyone else.

Commissioner Jim Carruthers, who is gay, spoke strongly in support of the measure and admonished those who sent the commission “violent, angry, ugly” e-mails on the matter. Such a negative response proves that protection for gay individuals is necessary, he said.

“These to me are all reasons why we need to do this,” he said. “There is so much hate and ignorance out there.”

Commissioner Mike Gillman said he remains “unconvinced” of the need for the ordinance, though he cast his vote in support.

“In the face of a unanimous or near-unanimous vote, I sincerely hope that opponents will drop any plans to initiate a petition drive, an act that would be extremely destructive to the reputation of this community as an open and welcoming town,” he said.

The issue spawned a long-running battle about 10 years ago, and that fight ultimately went before city voters.

Commissioners then passed a watered-down and legally nonbinding anti-discrimination resolution after months of discussion.

Opponents later secured a measure on a city election ballot that sought to prevent the city from passing an anti-discrimination ordinance, but voters soundly defeated that measure in November 2001.

After years of talk and the relatively meaningless anti-discrimination resolution, commissioners were ready for real action.

“It’s time,” commissioner Barbara Budros said.

UPDATE:  Opponents to the Traverse City non-discrimination ordinance succeeded in gaining enough signatures to put the ordinance on the ballot this November to the city.  A vote of ‘yes’ would keep the ordinance in the books, a vote of ‘no’ would remove it.  Read the entire ordinance here.

Post your thoughts on the above issues of discrimination below, and please be respectful in your comments.


27 thoughts on “Is Discrimination OK?

  1. Sorry I’ve been out of town (and out of wifi range)—really, I am. Great discussion and I appreciate deeply the perspectives. Just want to remind you that this is not a theoretical discussion–not for TC, and not for our country or world. I participated in the discussions and focus process re the bullying policies for TCAPS. It was both a heartening and disheartening process. It strikes me that those of us who are travelers with Jesus need to speak with a civil tongue (not my forte’, unless I work at it) and as much clarity as we possibly can, and we need to press the case that justice (for us) is about God-endowed human rights and dignity. This is not an ordinance about what people do…it’s about who people are. We especially need to do it because there are very loud voices, claiming to represent our Lord, doing just the opposite. We need to do it because some of us are LGBT, and because we work with, live in community with, know well, and depend on each other. In my discussions I heard venom and accusations, and I heard folks (whose integrity I want to not disparage) saying “there is no reason to “single out” or “name specifically” a group of people in saying we will not discriminate. My response, then and now, is that “previous speakers, who singled this group out, gave tragically ample reason for adding specificity to our policies about all of us who live together. I, too, wish it were not needed. But reality is something besides wishes.” Surely by now, history, if not our Sacred writings, has taught us that race and sexual orientation have headed the list of scapegoats and smoke screens that have created societies committing unspeakable atrocities (in my lifetime, if not yours). After all the confusion over how this proposition should be framed on our ballots seems to have been settled, I urge “yes” in opposition to discrimination. For me, at least, this is a moral, not a political issue.


  2. Mr. French offers, “My gosh, this discussion has veered terribly off-course. DrPete, I’m not sure what version of America you’d prefer to live in, but the Declaration of Independence has absolutely *no* legal bearing on our laws, as you surely know.” As to veering off course, I hadn’t realized that I’d entered a members-only zone. Clearly, I’m not a pub-theologian, and lack interest in being one. So I’ll back out.

    As to your opening foray, Mr. French, I surely don’t “know”. Yours is a Sonya Sotomayer mistake. The Declaration is predicate. There was serious disagreement as to whether the “Bill of Rights” should be added, and, indeed, the decision was to add it . . . as examples of individual rights in context. Given serious confusion resulting ala yours, the 9th amendment was inserted, saying, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

    Many Christians have gone apoplectic when I have opined that the unalienable right to liberty — to do whatever you wish . . . just as long as you don’t infringe on another’s like right in doing so — means in America that two men or two women or three men and a woman and a goat may “marry” (an arrangement which should have no-nil-nada-zero-zip-zilch legal standing or consequence).

    Bye, all. Sorry for the interruption.


  3. I agree too. I believe that anti-LGBT sentiment has been enshrined into local laws like Ordinance 605 because Christians are looking for additional heft to support their particular faith-perspective. They can see how society’s attitudes toward LGBT people are changing — especially among younger generations — and they fear that if additional support isn’t brought in (in the form of these laws), then they’ll have no way to prevent being looked upon as discriminatory bigots. If Christians are the only ones who are discriminating against LGBT people — by denying them baptism or church membership, for example (which they have every right to do), how will that make Christians look within an increasingly tolerant society?


    So therefore, LGBT people are left with the aftermath of massively-funded, church-organized laws and propositions. As a result, gay people can’t marry one another in California, I still can’t donate blood and even if if I were to legally marry my foreign-born boyfriend in New York, he wouldn’t be granted US citizenship and would be deported. I believe these things are happening, more than anything, so Christians can feel a little bit better about themselves; it’s harder to feel guilty when you’re not the only one throwing stones.


  4. Rather than write long drawn out response to your question have more to do with politics than discussion here are my thoughts:

    1. Regarding “Christian” schools discriminating against atheists, I think they may have missed Jesus’ message. Think about it, an atheist wants to send their kid to a Christian school where their kid will hear all sorts of things. Rather than build a Christian Bubble, that is preserved for what they deem to be “christian” I think they should look at expanding who they serve. Whether they have a “legal” standing does not matter to me as much as whether their version of Christianity reflects Jesus’ message.

    2. Regarding the Ordinance 605 in Traverse City. Those that are against it tend to be remarking that it will bring down the family and it is part of the “Gay Agenda.”

    Imagine if there was an ordinance that limited people over the weight of 300 pounds in having a job or getting housing. There would be a public outcry. Even if you feel gluttony is a “sin” you would still not advocate for such a policy.

    Therefore, since there are so many exceptions for faith-based organizations, it does not infringe church’s rights to discriminate, nor does it challenge the family. To actually improve families, there are much more pressing issues than this.


    1. I agree, Joe, on both of your points.

      I think that, in many ways, the USAmerican church has gotten a taste of power and “special-ness” (in the form of government protection and legitimacy) and now we are being asked to share. Being anxious people, Christians worry that any time “another” gains, “we” lose. And so if one non-Christian student is admitted to a Christian school, “we” are on a slippery slope to syncretism or something. Frankly, that argument seems to come out of insecurity and anxiety rather than confidence in Christ.

      As to the point on the TC Ordinance, the same rule applies. The reality that people exist outside of the boundaries set up by the USAmerican Church, although Christians are not united on the topic of homosexuality, seems tantamount to “pushing an agenda.” DADT (now defunct) and un-official “we don’t talk about that” language tried to silence a reality uncomfortable to many Christians. Again, this focus on silence and hiding reality seems to come out of anxiety far more than hope and common humanity.

      All in all, I wonder if Christian fear is rooted more in immaturity and our own presumptions than a thorough (community-based) reading of Scripture. Just some thoughts. I miss meeting with all of you at Pub Theology, but am now back in the swing of things meeting with the Glen Arbor/Maple City chapter of Pub Theology on Thursday nights.


  5. In terms of caring about those who are victims of discrimination, however, I see Jesus speaking out many times in defense of society’s most reviled groups. Tax collectors, thieves and lepers got a lot of attention (and affection) from Jesus, and we’ve easily got modern groups of oppressed minorities who are treated similarly, routinely discriminated against in hiring, housing and access to education, healthcare, and more. Muslims and LGBT people are disproportionately more likely to become victims of a violent attack or a hate crime than their Christian, heterosexual counterparts.

    As an openly gay person, I find it unconscionable when Christians seek to influence the law to justify the mistreatment of LGBT people via government regulations. Not only do I think it’s out of character for what Jesus and Paul would have advised, but I believe it’s morally wrong and harmful to society.

    Thankfully, our government does not derive its laws from Scripture, so it’s useless to try to ascertain what Jesus would have our government do. If you’re a believer, however, I’d encourage Christians to look out for the least of these, to treat others as you’d want to be treated, and to love your neighbor as yourself.


    1. I knew I could count on you, Mr. French, to get us back on track. 🙂

      I was getting a bit lost in the earlier discussion, and your redirection is appreciated: “Is it Christlike to care about discrimination and the way people are treated?”



  6. My gosh, this discussion has veered terribly off-course. DrPete, I’m not sure what version of America you’d prefer to live in, but the Declaration of Independence has absolutely *no* legal bearing on our laws, as you surely know. Moreover, our courts have long held that there is a genuine state interest for federal, state and local governments to regulate who can work, at what wages, and who can be fired. I can’t imagine you’d want to live in a country that filled its factories with foreign children, working in unsafe conditions for pennies by the hour. If you’re delusional enough to believe that any such regulations are unconstitutional and wrong, I’ll happily brand you a far-right wing extremist who isn’t living in the actual America.

    This is a Christian-based blog, right? Isn’t it a more probing discussion to wonder aloud whether it’s Christ-like to care about discrimination, rather than whether or not it’s unconstitutional?

    As a former Christian, I’d argue that both Jesus and Paul showed considerable reticence and humility before the government. Rather than speaking out against slavery, for example, Paul exhorted Christian slaves to “remain in the position you were in when you were called.” They were told *not* to seek their freedom, but rather, to “do your work heartily as unto the Lord.”

    Instead, Paul spoke to a day when there would be “neither slave nor free.” In the meantime, Christians were called to “obey the laws of the land,” and “be careful to do what is right in the sight of everyone.” It seems that rather than encourage Roman citizens to claim an influential place in the democracy or fight back against Rome’s laws, much of Scripture exhorts followers to focus on living with godly character, while “rendering unto Caesar what is due unto Caesar.”

    — continued in next entry


  7. America’s Founders, Mr. Berghoef, proclaimed in their Declaration of Independence those unalienable rights from the Creator. That was a first. No nation before had been so predicated. Rights came from governments or kings or dictators. Consider them “natural rights”, if you will, thus legal and trumping anything man-made.

    Here’s logic. We the People via our Founders constructed a Constitution which in extremely-limited fashion empowered a federal government. We the People then consented to the outcome by ratifying it. We the People could not grant powers to that government which we did not ourselves individually possess.

    Each of us had the unalienable rights to life, to liberty, and to property (from whence derives the pursuit of happiness). We also each had the unalienable right to self-defend our lives, our liberty, and our property against those who would infringe upon them. We the People granted authority to our federal government to protect and defend our unalienable rights collectively as each of us could individually . . . no more and no less. By what means the federal government is to do that is enumerated in Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution.

    Laws empowering the government beyond what is explicit in Article 1 Section 8 are — de jure and de facto — unconstitutional, and a case of the government infringing upon what it has sworn to protect and defend. That’s license and plunder.


  8. Troy –
    I don’t think there’s any consensus about that. I think the interesting question is the moral one, specifically what laws it would be moral to pass. I think Bryan was leaving it open for people to discuss either (or other).

    I think it’s clear that the “tangent I took” was a question about something you said, so it’s a little unfair to characterize it that way. Perhaps it wasn’t central to your argument–if so, we can drop it–but you did say that all laws infringing on liberty (e.g., your right to discriminate in hiring or to be enslaved) were unconstitutional. That doesn’t follow unless the US Constitution forbids such laws. My point was that, historically, and presently it does not. So, it doesn’t follow that all such liberty-infringing laws are unconstitutional. Maybe you want to say that it *ought* to forbid them, but then you’re making a moral argument, not a constitutional one.

    (Similarly, you make a claim about what the sole duty of the federal government is, but on what basis are you making that claim? Constitutional? Moral? Other? If you could clarify your argument, that would help.)

    Perhaps you meant only to say that laws contrary to the “arbitrary discrimination” principle you’ve proposed are contrary to the right to liberty or one of the other Declaration of Independence rights. That may be so. But let’s ask about that right to liberty. Do you take it to be a right in the legal sense or in the moral sense (or some other)? If legal, what law are you citing? If moral, what moral principle?


  9. The 14th amendment, Mr. Berghoef, would mean that not only may the federal government not proscribe, say, the unalienable right to liberty without meeting the “necessary AND proper clause” strict requirements, but neither may any of the states. Thus, “equal protection”.

    Titles of of Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the follow-up Age Discrimination legislation of 1967 were both unconstitutional infringements upon liberty, and the Supremes have been stupid many times, including Griggs. In Griggs the Court DEMANDED discrimination based on race.

    ACTUAL race, sex, or “sexual-preference” or age discrimination is self-defeating stupidity, Bryan. It’s — sans basis — reducing one’s pool of job applicants or renters or whatever, and likely superior ones That said, each human being is endowed by the Creator with the unalienable right to stupidity.


    1. I threw those out as possibilities – I am no constitutional law expert. Good points are always appreciated, as is civil discourse.

      So are you saying actual discrimination is self-defeating (and thereby, in your words, stupid)? If so, I think we probably agree. But what harm then, in a city ordinance acknowledging said reality? Is it superfluous? Or does it, as you inferred, actually cause discrimination, the opposite of its said intent? I’m not sure I’m following on that. Perhaps an example would help.


  10. Perhaps the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment applies here?

    From Wikipedia:
    Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, forbids job discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex or religion. Title VII applies both to private and to public employers. The Supreme Court ruled in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) that (1) if an employer’s policy has disparate racial consequences, and (2) if the employer cannot give a reasonable justification for such a policy on grounds of “business necessity,” then the employer’s policy violates Title VII.


  11. I based none of my argument on the Constitution — the U.S. Constitution — clubbers10. I based it on unalienable rights, including to liberty.

    Because — and only because — the sole duty of the federal government — yes, the U.S. federal government — is to protect and defend the unalienable rights of Americans, I mentioned that U.S. laws infringing upon and proscribing liberty were, thus, unconstitutional.

    Continuing on the tangent you took vis-a-vis the U.S. Constitution, the document as written, original meaning, in my almost-always-humble opinion was egregiously-faulty twice: slavery and tariffs. Both failed to protect and defend liberty. The first we fixed; the second remains.

    Further continuing on the tangent you took, please help me by pointing out the amendment to the Constitution — the U.S. Constitution — prohibiting the hiring or firing based on race.


  12. thedrpete – You seem to be taking ‘OK’ to mean ‘constitutional’. I assume you have in mind the US Constitution. If so, your answer is a bit puzzling. Under the original US Constitution, slavery was permitted and women were not allowed to vote. So, the original Constitution did not seem to grant us the rights you want to claim as constitutional.

    Of course it has been amended, in part as a reaction to those apparently constitutional injustices. Yet, the amended US Constitution does not permit, for example, employers to hire or fire people on the basis of race. So the claim that you may constitutionally discriminate on any or no basis seems false.

    The question then is this: which constitution is it that is the basis of your argument? Neither the original, nor the amended seem to support your claims.


  13. My predicate here would be that each human being is born endowed by the Creator with the unalienable right to life, to liberty and to property (from whence derives the pursuit of happiness). The above, then, dictates that no one has a right to my life or any part thereof. No one has a right to my property, which includes myself and whatever else I legitimately acquire or earn. I have (liberty) the right to do whatever I please and choose, just as long as I don’t infringe on another’s like right in the process.

    Okay, then, to the question. If I want to have work done, I may offer a job to anyone I wish and at any compensation I wish. I own the job. No one has a right to it, nor responsibility to accept it. I may discriminate on any basis I wish . . . or on no basis.

    If I own property, I have a right to do with it anything I wish, just as long as I don’t infringe on another’s property in the process. I may discriminate on any basis I wish . . . or on no basis.

    Laws to the contrary are unconstitutional.


    1. Not to be nitpicking, but though the “right to property” is mentioned in the Human Rights charta, the idea that we have been “endowed by the Creator” with such a right, especially as you interpret it (“a right to do with it anything I wish”), seems a bit far-fetched. It doesn’t exactly rhyme with the biblical concept of stewardship, I think.


      1. First, Mr. Rendel, I care not a nanowit about the “Human Rights charta” [sic]. The United Nations was a bogus concept from the getgo, and the USA should never have joined, and now should both quit and deport it. Second, I NEVER either said or implied that I have “a right to do with it (my property) anything I wish”.

        If you’re going to disagree with my point, you first have to correctly understand my point. It’s of no value to disagree with what I didn’t say.

        Third, when I assert that each of us has an unalienable right to life, to liberty, and to property, and that said means that we may do whatever the heck we want to with them . . . AS LONG AS WE DON’T INFRINGE ON ANOTHER’S LIKE RIGHT IN THE PROCESS, I didn’t say that God would be pleased or that God wouldn’t judge us as sinful or that God wouldn’t condemn us. We, after all, were also endowed with free will. I am certainly implying that I don’t think that God has delegated to either the federal government or to us the power to judge or prosecute or punish on His behalf.

        Now again, I’ll depart this members-only confab.


  14. It’s okay for a private organization or group to do it. ‘Okay’ meaning ‘legal’ or ‘should be legal’, or at least that’s how I’m using it.

    If you are the government, or are receiving funds from the government, then no, you can’t discriminate.


  15. perhaps the question isn’t “is discrimination ok?” but rather “what is discrimination?”

    is it discriminatory for particular organizations (religious or otherwise) to limit their staff/patrons/community to only like-minded individuals?

    if so, then is it still necessary? and is necessity a qualifier for anything to be considered “ok”


    1. You’re right, Troy, other questions are necessary to answer the question I posed. The real issue is, as you noted, what exactly is discrimination, and when, if ever, is it appropriate? But sometimes a simple title is “OK” to invite a more nuanced discussion. 🙂


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