Sunday, August 22, 2010

No soup for you! Freedom vs. discrimination

The TV show Seinfeld had a funny shtick about a restaurant that served a really tasty mulligatawny. If, however, a customer didn't approach the server appropriately, the head chef might yell "No soup for you!" and refuse to sell. In fact, depending on the severity of the offense, the "soup Nazi" (as the chef came to be known) might issue bans up to a year in duration! How could this happen in America, the land of the free? Surely I'm free to approach the counter any way I want, right?

In another episode, the character Elaine went to a Yankees baseball home game up in the Bronx wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap. A fan took exception and demanded she remove the hat. She said "No, this is America, it's a free country!"

Back in the real world, recently President Obama declared his opinion that an Islamic group had the right to build a mosque near the site of "Ground Zero" where the World Trade Center towers once stood, saying ""This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable." I, myself, would tend to theoretically agree with that statement...but then I'm conflicted since I have difficulty when, in the name of freedom, the Confederate Flag - with all it symbolizes for both its proponents and opponents - is flown from a state capitol building.

Last month, I read an interesting article in the New York Times by Stanley Fish, professor of humanities and law at Florida International University,  entitled Is Religion Special? in which Professor Fish discussed the conundrum of a free society's interest in protecting freedom of religion, the expression of which might include discrimination. His conclusion: "What it goes to show is that the conflict between the liberal state, with its devotion to procedural rather than substantive norms, and religion, which is all substance from its doctrines to its procedures, is intractable." They key word here is "intractable."

Today, I was included on a distribution list and received this article about an Adventist leader's reaction to the Toronto Vegetarian Association's rejection of an application from the Health department of the Ontario Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for participation in its 2010 Vegetarian Food Fair.

In summary, TVA's issue is precisely about the official Adventist denominational position statement on homosexuality (a well-rounded application of this statement is found here). The TVA is a non-religious organization who seeks not to make uncomfortable homosexuals who might be in attendance and may take offense to the presence of an Adventist booth as a representation of the church's stance against homosexuality.

The article delivered to my inbox, written by Adventist leader Martin Weber, labels this an act of the "radical left", and I (being a Seventh-day Adventist) disagree with his position.

Adventists have long been the topic of study for the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Any vegetarian organization benefits from including Adventist knowledge,  experience and credibility in its programs. TVA's decision to decline the application is to stand on a principal that comes at a cost, and we should rather commend the TVA for willing to take that stand before we stoop to name-calling.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has had a stake in active religious liberty efforts for well over 100 years. We should, therefore, be quite capable of recognizing what constitues an exercise of freedom, religious or otherwise, even if it inconveniences or opposes our views. Freedom is a doubled-edged sword.

As a Seventh-day Adventist, I enjoy the freedom to go to church on Saturday. The government's defence of my right to do so extends to everyone else to join me, or go to church on Sunday. Or on Friday. Or not at all.

My "right to be right" means not only that others have the right to be wrong, but also that others are in their right consider me wrong.

Having said that, it does demonstrate the endless loop of the conundrum. Isn't the TVA's decision, to oppose the discriminatory nature of the church's position, itself also discrimination against the church? How do you oppose discrimination... by discriminating? In effect, the TVA had to choose whom to embrace and whom to exclude, and did so apparently on the basis of the losing group's very willingness to do the same thing, for whatever reason.

People are free to be homosexual, or not. People are free to endorse homosexuality, or not. People are free to support either view and the respective proponents thereof. Essentially, discrimination is, to a degree, inherent in freedom.

Is there a right/wrong assessment to be made? They're both right in exercising their discriminate.

What, then, is the  value of "freedom"? Basically,the value is that the state is not taking sides. People and organizations are, basically, free to take their positions. For what it's worth, this is the caveat by which I take umbrage with the Confederate flag. Religious or otherwise, the Confederate flag is symbolically not unlike a swastika; its use by private citizens or groups is one thing, but the state capitol or any other community government building should be off limits. As such, at the end of the day, the TVA is a private organization and within its right. So, very sorry, Health Department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ontario, but "no soup for you!" Or, "if you're going to come to Yankee Stadium, freedom notwithstanding, don't be wearing an Orioles hat."

Professor Fish can only conclude that the conflict will remain "intractable" ("not easily governed or managed").  Not only do I agree with that particular choice of word, but I came to that conclusion all by myself, some time ago, as an extension of my personal religious beliefs. 

Hence the OughtThought: life is too complex for finite human minds to administrate with absolute ideological clarity and consistency. By extension, the extent to which Christians look for a new kingdom governed by an all-wise God, situations such as these support the contention that any such kingdom could only be managed by an all-knowing entity.


Errol Liverpool said...

It was just recently that Dr. Laura ranted about not being able to exercise her First Amendment right because she was criticized for saying the n-word eleven times on her radio show. While she is free to use that term among her friends and associates, she does not have carte blanche on the radio.

While I agree with Mr. Aubin that the TVA , as a private organization, has the right to discriminate as to what organizations they allow to display a booth at their fair, I do ask what is the correlation between vegetarianism and homosexuality? Was the SDA church there to talk about sex or food? What about an organization's position on adultery, cohabitation, etc? I think we are treading on dangerous grounds when we start asking others to renounce/denounce when the renouncing/denouncing has nothing to do with the subject at hand.

Since there is no such thing as absolute freedom, the issue then is not one of "freedom," but rights. A free society can only remain free as long as it has laws that protect the rights of all, including the minority. As free as America is, the FCC has wisely determined that somethings cannot be said on the airwaves. Freedom without rules leads to anarchy. While I am not supportive of "name calling" I think it is perfectly okay to criticize the TVA for its contradictory position. Better yet, in the name of freedom, the Ontario Conference should sponsor its own vegetarian fair. Maybe, this is a blessing in disguise.

DA said...

Hey Dr. Liverpool,

Good thoughts, I feel like Gilligan in saying "you're right, Professor" after having said to the TVA "you're right, Mr. Howell" and in response to the Skipper telling me "they both can't be right" I reply..."you're right, Skipper."

The TVA, to be sure, is essentially doing what it's criticizing the SDA church for doing - taking a stand for something it believes in.

By the same token, let's envision an Ontario Conference-sponsored vegetarian fair. Let's assume they didn't just invite church members, but opened it up to the public as a form of outreach, and invited other organizations to contribute. If the "Association for the Advancement of LGBT Vegetarians" submitted an application to host a booth, would the church accept them? In the same boat, the church would likely follow a similar path - take a stand for what it believes in, and let the chips fall where they may.

It is indeed a dilemma - thus, Christians join the last words in the book of Revelation (well, 22:20, anyway), "Even so, come , Lord Jesus"!

Trevor Jones said...

So, what now say you? Where do we go from here? Who/what protects the marginalized, vulnerable, those whose rights/freedoms have been compromised. Whose rights/freedoms takes precedence and by whose/what measure?

The love of Christ contrains...

Richard Dumais said...

James 4:4b "Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God".

In the context of the TVA position on the SDA application, it is clear to me that since the SDA is taking the "pro-God" position of saying that the sexual practices of the LGBT are sinful (NOT to be confused with rejecting members of the LGBT as people worthy of love and respect) and the TVA is taking the position that what the SDA is saying about the LGBT is wrong, these two organizations cannot be friends and one organization will naturally not want to invite the other to it's "party". The SDA could only be friends with the TVA by declaring itself an enemy of the GOD!