L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 287, September 5, 2004
"Who the hell are these people?"
Your Fair Share
Special to TLE
I don't recall that I've ever heard any rational man or woman seriously suggest that people or groups be treated unfairly by other people or groups. Meanwhile, I've heard a whole lot of people demand their fair share of fair treatment. This strikes me as eminently reasonable and, well, fair. The problem that's been blatantly brought home to me lately, however, is that those demanding fair treatment are somehow deeply offended and even angered when that same fair treatment is given to others.
Within relatively recent memory, a story out of Pennsylvania made the national news scene. It seems a teacher's aide was wearing jewelry including a crucifix pendant. The necklace (which was quite small and unobtrusiveI checked) was interpreted by some in the school administration to be a promotion of Christianity, and public institutions aren't supposed to promote religion. Well, last time I checked, they weren't to deny religion, either. But the teacher's aide was never-the-less fired. Fortunately, the subsequent outcry at the inherent unreasonableness of both the school policy and her termination saw her reinstated to her job.
School students are also typically required to adhere to some sort of a dress code. In the vast majority of codes, crucifixes and Star of David necklaces or other items are rarely singled out for any kind of ban. Unfortunately, in blatantly discriminatory dress code rules, some schools do prohibit the Muslim crescent and the Wiccan pentagram from display on student clothing or jewelry. (Students who adhere to the latter religions have some recourse via the legal system and can thus often reconcile the problem, though it's regrettable they should be forced to go to the trouble and expense of doing so.) At the same time some struggle for fair treatment, the people who are wearing crucifixeswho will fight, if necesssary, to do sodemand that those of other religions not be permitted to wear religious symbols of their own.
Prayer in the classroom is also a perennial issue in politics, churches, and school districts across the country. Schools that prohibit Bible clubs from meeting on school property outside of school hours usually say that they're doing so because the First Amendment prohibits the endorsement of religion. Their underlying rationale is correct, but their reasoning is not. Since such club meetings are outside of class hours, no student can be compelled to go or can be forced to be exposed to their content. If there is to be fair treatment in a taxpayer funded facility, then all taxpayers should have equal access. A Bible club should be treated no differently than, say, a chess club. Bible clubs have fought and won their cases accordingly. But once again, those promoting the idea of a Bible club all too often just can't graciously accept their share of fair treatment and enjoy it. No, instead, they have to take signs to school board meetings and protest the right of groups of which they don't approve to enjoy the same access to meeting space.
Schools are far from being alone in such debates. The ACLU tells of a county that permitted a Christian religious display on its lawn during the Christmas holiday season, saying it wasn't a religious endorsement but was rather an allowance for a church to its right to free speech in a public square. When a local Wiccan circle, however, tried to erect a sign wishing local residents a Happy Yule, the county had the display removed. The county was sued as a consequence, and rightfully so. Had officials been willing to treat all groups equally, there would never have been any argument or legal action. (As an added bonus, the spate of atheist lawsuits could be abated if municipalities would handle matters of such displays fairly.)
In the news just a few weeks ago, I read of a library that refused to permit a religious group to meet in one of its rooms. The problem with that prohibition was the fact that the library's rooms were available to any member of the public who scheduled the use and paid a nominal rental fee. Refusing the religious group was discriminatory, and the library is going to have to change its policies accordingly. I have to wonder, though, how many people would have stood up in support of, say, an area gay advocacy group under similar circumstances.
It's said that the two topics not to be discussed at casual dinner parties are religion and politics. So it's interesting that what actually got me started thinking about the idea of discriminatory discrimination as it is so often exemplified in religious issues is a political matter only lately brought to my attention.
I'm told that a certain high schoollike many othershas made available its facilities for rent. Individuals or groups can rent a small classroom or the entire gymnasium; they can reserve and use the auditorium, or the cafeteria. The criteria are relatively simple for the rental: the room must be available, and you must pay the set fee. Because a room did happen to be available, and because the set fees are quite reasonable, a large room was rented for an evening during the Republican National Convention. In that room, a party of sorts will be held to celebrate the nomination of George W. Bush for President of the United States. People will eat snacks, mill around chatting with each other, and watch the President's acceptance speech on a big screen TV. They'll probably have fun.
But like those people who don't like those who are of other religious persuasions, the Democrats in that town are apparently not happy that the Republicans are having a party in a taxpayer funded facility. Doesn't that, they ask, constitute an endorsement of the Republican Party by the school? It is, they say, just not fair that the Republicans are being allowed to rent space there.
In actuality, it's perfectly fair. I'm sure that many Republicans pay their taxes, so they have a stake in that taxpayer funded facility at least as much as do any Democrats. And the Democrats could have rented a room of their own during their own conventionor they can rent one in the future, if they like. Because they have thus far chosen not to should have no bearing on whether or not the Republican event can move forward. Most important of all insofar as equal treatment is concerned, other groups have rented rooms in the school. To deny the Republicans solely because they are Republicans would be discrimination of the worst and most obvious sort.
It's sad that more people are apparently not capable of understanding that fair treatment for them also means fair treatment for others. If there are Boy Scouts or chess clubs permitted to meet after school hours on school grounds, then the Bible club, the Science Fiction club, and the Teen Firearms Safety club ought also be able to meet. If Christians can wear crosses, then witches should be allowed pentagrams. And if the NAACP can rent a room in a city or state facility, then so can the Republicans, Democrats, or PETA franchises for a given area.
There's only one other way that we can be entirely non-discriminatory, and that's to refuse permission to anyone or any group to use public facilities for anything other than the services that facility provides. And while that would certainly be equal treatment, it would undeniably be unfair. It would also be openly contemptuous of the First Amendment (simply because that's already true for any number of government policies these daysparticularly on the federal leveldoesn't mean we should encourage further inroads into one of our most precious freedoms).
Despite the fact that, as I said, I've never heard anyone stand up and say, point blank, "Yes, I think discrimination is good!" there's a first time for everything. Which of you would like to be first to suggest that government entitities of any and all kinds be encouraged to play favorites in an official capacity? Before you get up, don't forget what favoritism in the eyes of the government entails (if you can't recall, perhaps you should consider asking a Native American or a black man from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment if you can find one alive; or spend some time reading up on the fate of the handicapped, gypsies, homosexuals, and Jews at the hands of the Nazis). Or which of you would openly advocate that, rather than allowing groups you don't like to use certain facilities, no groups at all be allowed to use them?
Still sitting, I see ... So here's the bottom line: All of those who don't have the nerve to stand up should have the decency to sit down, be quiet (or at least civil), and wait their turn to take advantage of their share of what's fair.