This week, outrage emerged over reports that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia over her political affiliations. The Red Hen’s owner Stephanie Wilkinson stood by her decision to refuse service. Speaking in an interview with the Washington Post, Wilkinson cited Sanders’ work for an “inhumane and unethical” administration as well as the concerns of the eatery’s employees. The Red Hen’s decision to ask Sanders to leave was fair. The Red Hen, along with any business or service, should have the freedom to choose what customers they associate with, without compromising their values or principles.
The Red Hen is entirely free to refuse service to Sanders. The case is a classic example of freedom of association. People and businesses should be free to choose the customers and ideas that they serve and promote. While some districts and cities choose to have expansive discrimination protections, it goes without saying that these protections put people’s ability to defend their principles at risk.
Businesses are allowed to be selective with their service. In the case of the Red Hen, the selectivity was based on the political message that serving Sanders would send.
Serving Sanders that night represented the staff’s uncomfortable tolerance toward President Donald Trump, one they were not ready to show.
This question of free speech and tolerance was the question the Supreme Court chose to ignore in their Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission decision. In the case, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Jack Phillips, chose to refuse service to a gay couple that was requesting a cake for their wedding. He refused service and said baking the cake would compromise his religious beliefs regarding marriage.
When weighing the first amendment against protection from discrimination, the court wrote that states should create fair and neutral processes to ensure protected classes and business owners their due process right. However, the court could not establish whether freedom of speech or freedom from discrimination were more important.
Ultimately, the court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had been unfair in its treatment of Masterpiece Cakeshop, contrasting Masterpiece’s treatment to other Colorado bakers who refused to bake anti-gay messages and prevailed. Many celebrated the decision on the grounds that the court had decided against infringing on the First Amendment, but many mourned what they saw as a renewed pass to discriminate.
During the oral arguments for the Masterpiece case, Masterpiece lawyers used the anecdote of a bakery owned by a black family being approached by a member of the KKK, where a cake for a Klan celebration was requested. Few people would disagree that the black family would be within their rights to refuse baking the cake. It is a question of principle.
Business owners should not have to compromise their sincerely held beliefs, whether it is an objection to a policy or a religious belief, just because they are an establishment that is open to the public. The Red Hen’s decision to choose between who they would and would not serve was an exercise of free speech, and a decision to maintain the integrity of their principles.
Discrimination of any kind — political, racial or sexual — is reprehensible, but that does not mean we should force business owners to service people or events that they disagree with. Sanders can go to another restaurant and gay couples looking for wedding cakes can look for another bakery.
What is good for the goose is good for the gander, or in this case, the Red Hen and Masterpiece Cakeshop.