When Is Discrimination OK?

Very interesting post on Business Week: “Can Small Businesses Start a Gay Rights Movement in Mississippi?

I totally support nondiscrimination in any public accommodation or retail setting—and I’m delighted to see the “We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling” campaign in Mississippi. But at the risk of alienating some of my friends, l think service businesses–especially values-based ones—are a different case. Before you jump all over me—read the language I send to new prospects for my marketing and consulting services:

Please note that I reserve the right to reject a project if I feel I’m not the right person for it. This would include projects that in my opinion promote racism, homophobia, bigotry or violence–or that promote the tobacco, nuclear power, or weapons industries–or if I do not feel the product is of high enough quality that I can get enthusiastic about it.

Notice that this language doesn’t discriminate against a person or class of people–but it certainly does discriminate against a set of beliefs.

Now, if I reserve that privilege for myself, how can I possibly justify withholding it from someone else who runs a service business and has different values than mine?

Also, there’s a provider quality issue. If I were forced to write a piece of marketing copy for a product whose values I despised, I would do a terrible job. Even if I consciously tried to do my best, it would come out shoddy and insincere, because I wouldn’t believe in what I was promoting. By the same token, I can’t imagine why a same-sex couple would WANT to hire a homophobic wedding photographer (one of the examples cited in the article); the pictures will be terrible.

If you’re renting a room, buying a sandwich, riding a bus, patronizing a theme park…yes, you should have the right to be served. But if a service provider is being asked to use specialized skills to support a cause that service provider finds morally repugnant, I’m not at all sure we should coerce that behavior.

Please comment below. I’d love to get some good dialog going on this.

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