Reserving the Right to Refuse Service

Shortly after the news broke that a restaurant owner had refused Sarah Huckabee Sanders service, politely asking her to leave because of her association with President Trump, Facebook exploded. Accounts of the event from different news sources were being shared right and left. Tweets were being posted. And plenty of friends were cheering on the Red Hen, applauding the owner for her stand against injustice.

Quite frankly, that was my first reaction too. Maybe it's because I'm so disturbed by the magnitude of the injustice that I see with this administration. Maybe it's because I want to stand up in some way but I'm not always sure how. And maybe it's because I'm in the LGBTQ+ community and I'm starting to feel like my rights might be threatened. Whatever the case, my first thought was, "Good for the Red Hen!"

But that righteous celebration quickly turned to an unease that I just couldn't shake. The reason is twofold.

First, there's the law. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, you may not discriminate against certain protected classes of people. Right now, at the federal level, that means that you may not discriminate against groups based on their race or the color of their skin, their religion, their national origin, or their ability. That's it. Those are the only protected classes of people, unless you live in a state or municipality that has stricter laws. And businesses still have the right to refuse service to anyone, so long as the business isn't singling someone out because of one of the criteria listed above. For example, if a cafe says "no shirt, no shoes, no service" and someone who is Catholic comes in with no shirt, the cafe may refuse service on those grounds. But if the individual is doing nothing wrong, and the cafe owner notices a crucifix around the person's neck and then makes up a reason for refusing service - that's discrimination and illegal.

Notice what groups aren't protected by either of the above mentioned federal laws? The LGBTQ+ community. Women. Progressives. Conservatives. Immigrants.

Which is why I started to get uneasy. Because there are plenty of people who would stand up and cheer if people like me - married, female, gay, pastor - got kicked out of a restaurant or a hotel. As demonstrated by the hardware store that put a "No Gays" sign up in its window, any business could refuse to serve me simply because I'm married to Lauren. They could even make it a moral issue - they could say, "I won't serve you here because I think you're living in an immoral manner."

The truth is, we have to be careful when it comes to taking a stand in this particular way. When we refuse service in this manner or cheer on someone who does (like I did), we have to seriously ask ourselves, "Is this method of standing up for what I believe in really reflective of what I believe, or am I becoming just like the people whom I'm protesting?" Personally, I don't want to become like this administration in any way. And as good as it might feel to refuse service to someone in it, especially when I have the legal right to do so, I think that I, personally, would be seeking revenge rather than standing up for what I believe to be true.

(As a note, it is important to know that the owner conferred with her staff, several of whom are in the LGBTQ+ community. Ms. Sanders supported the ban of transgendered persons in the military, so the staff felt threatened by her presence. It was only after staff input that the owner politely asked Ms. Sanders to leave. It seems as though the owner may have been more motivated by protectiveness than I would have been in the same situation.)

All of which brings me to my second reason for feeling uneasy. The religious issue. The Bible doesn't say much about the right to refuse service. But it does say a lot about how we should treat those with whom we disagree - even those whom we would consider our enemies. Turn the other cheek. Treat them with love. Pray for them and do not curse them.

Now to be clear, I'm not saying that anyone should stand meekly by and serve someone they disagree with - especially on such huge moral issues - without comment or question. What I am saying is this: maybe instead of asking them to leave, we should seize the opportunity to engage with them, to share our stories of oppression and pain and anger, and to share our outrage and concern about the injustice that we see. Perhaps through dialogue, we could actually make a constructive difference. It might be a long shot, but I'm not sure I'd be willing to give up the opportunity to try with someone like Ms. Sanders. Would this be an interruption to her meal? Yes. And she could then decide whether or not she wanted to stay. But contrary to what some White House officials have said, I don't believe that those in public office necessarily have the right to eat out in peace. The truth is, because they're in public office, they are answerable to the people. It is actually the people who have the right to approach those officials and to engage in dialogue with them. This is foundational to the functioning of our democracy.

The bottom line? This is a complicated issue. Would Christ have reserved the right to refuse service? I'm tempted to say no, but he did drive people out of the temple, so maybe it's not so clear cut. Certainly, the owner of the Red Hen was well within her rights. Whatever you may believe about her decision, I think the entirety of the case should lead us each to self-reflection. What would our motivations be in her position? Are those motivations healthy, or do they bring us eerily close to acting like the very people whom we are protesting? What opportunities might God be opening in that strange moment when you find yourself face to face with the most unlikely of people? For me, I'd now think twice before exercising my right to refuse service, because I'd likely be doing it out of revenge. Then again, that might not always be the case.

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