Tuesday, July 31, 2012


In the process of doing some reading about the Chick-Fil-A business permit fiasco*, I ran across a CBS News article that has a few quotes I haven’t seen discussed. The first two are statements by Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno, who is threatening to block Chick-Fil-A from opening a restaurant in his district. According to the CBS story:

On Wednesday, Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno said he wants Chick-fil-A to adopt a written anti-discrimination policy before it is granted a permit for a new restaurant in Chicago. "There are consequences for freedom of speech (and) in this case the consequences are... you're not going to have your first free-standing restaurant in Chicago," he said.
Yes, there are consequences for freedom of speech. Our customers, our friends, our community, our associations, perhaps even our employer may impose such consequences when we speak freely. The point of the First Amendment, however, is that the government may not impose consequences for freedom of speech. 

The second quote is also from Alderman Moreno:

Moreno said he's been working with Chick-fil-A on the matter for several months and that the restaurant has already verbally agreed "they will no longer donate any dollars to any organization -- left, right or center -- that has a political agenda."

The idea that a government official would force a company (or individual or other organization) to restrict its donations - political or otherwise - in exchange for the “privilege” of doing business is appalling. Even more appalling is that Mr. Moreno considers this something to be proud of.

The third quote is from Philadelphia City Councilman Jim Kenney. Mr. Kenney wrote the head of Chick-Fil-A denouncing his comments; that’s fine with me. Mr. Kenney will introduce a resolution to the City Council “condemning Chick-Fil-A”; that’s fine with me, too. Mr. Kenney told CBS that some constituents support and some oppose what he is doing:

"People who are mostly con continue on with the religious aspect," he said. "American civil liberties are not ordained by religion, they're ordained by a free and democratic government. There were times when religion was used to explain slavery and lots of other ills."

I can imagine few ideas more dangerous than the idea that our civil liberties** are whatever the government decides they are. American civil liberties were originally conceived as a way to protect us from the government; to assert that there are some rights that are ours by virtue of being human and that bestowing and removing them are beyond the reach of government. Government can violate them but it does not grant them and cannot take them away.

Furthermore, the councilman has clearly not thought through his view of religion. He implies that we had slavery and other ills because of religion; that without religion we wouldn't have societal ills. This is nonsensical on the face of it. Societies use whatever is handy to justify what they want to do. Sometimes they use religion; sometimes they use ideology; sometimes they use science. Religion is an extremely useful tool but it is not a cause.

The other aspect of the councilman's statement that is discouraging is his utter lack of historical knowledge. He seems totally unaware that religion was the driver of and the justification for both the Abolitionist movement in the mid-nineteenth century and the Black civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. Once again, society uses whatever is at hand to justify what it wants to do.

There is one positive thing I can say about both Mr. Moreno’s bullying and Mr. Kenney’s views of civil rights and religion: these men are being honest. As Ross Douthat said in his recent New York Times opinion piece:

If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.
The alderman and the councilman have done exactly as Douthat asked. Now we can, as Douthat says, "get on with the fight" - honestly.



* If you don’t know what this fiasco is, you can read Glenn Greenwald for an excellent explanation.

** Here’s how Wikipedia begins its definition of ”Civil liberties in the United States”:

Civil liberties of the United States are certain inalienable rights retained by (as opposed to privileges granted to) citizens of the United States under the Constitution of the United States, as interpreted and clarified by the Supreme Court of the United States and lower federal courts.
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