T-shirt company’s refusal of service pits rights against social justice


“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

- Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963

To begin, I’m going to pose a hypothetical controversy that will appear very familiar. In this hypothetical problem, one party argues that it would be a conflict with their core beliefs to produce T-shirts promoting a festival that celebrates views with which they fundamentally disagree. The festival organizers argue that this rejection is in fact discrimination, and file a complaint of discrimination with Lexington’s Human Rights Commission.

Obviously, this hypothetical situation closely mirrors a recent controversy between the Lexington company Hands On Originals and the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization. After winning the contract to produce a T-shirt for the annual Lexington Pride Festival, Hands On Originals declined the business, citing that they are a Christian organization and the promotion of such an event is against their beliefs.

At the heart of this conflict is the tension between the practice of specific rights and an evolving concept of social justice, and it has become a frequent battleground on the American stage. In fact, as much as we preach about the precious rights and liberties we enjoy as Americans, we forget just how often these liberties come into conflict. As the Hands On Originals controversy unfolds locally, it mirrors the same tensions of competing liberties and notions of social justice and progress that we see in the national dialogue.

For instance, Rush Limbaugh calls Sandra Fluke a “slut,” and a vocal minority suggest that he should be removed from the public airwaves, pitting his First Amendment rights against the notions of gender inequality. In another example, religiously affiliated health-care providers argue that providing services counter to their convictions violates their right of free religious exercise, while the opposition stresses the lack of equal access that would result if the organization was exempt from providing such services. I have grossly oversimplified these arguments in both examples, but the point is that these issues are difficult because they are exceedingly complex, and they pit our very strong and deeply felt American values against themselves. What rights and liberties take priority? How far should we press down on one liberty to support another? These larger issues are at the heart of the questions that we are trying to address, but is the ongoing debate truly concerned with the exercise of these rights and freedoms, or are both sides more interested in furthering their own causes?

Let’s get back to the hypothetical I stated to begin with. At issue for the first party is the conflict with their own personal beliefs that arise from publishing a contradictory message in an inherently promotional product. Should they be coerced — through the threat of governmental penalty — to promote a viewpoint which is antithetical to their beliefs? And what rights, if any, should be afforded to the second party — a group with equally strong personal convictions — to ensure equal access to services?

Now that the rhetorical battle lines have been drawn, here are the rest of the details: Let’s assume, now, that the hypothetical T-shirt manufacturer is owned and operated by a lesbian couple, and the T-shirt order came from a local community church, for a festival that supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

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