Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Drawing Lines on Star Trek-Based Discrimination

Ed Brayton over at Dispatches has a thoughtful piece up titled Drawing Lines on Religion-Based Discrimination, which takes as a jumping-off point the example of a gay couple in Illinois suing a bed-and-breakfast that refused to host their wedding, and goes on to examine the complex relationship between religious freedom and religious discrimination, and attempts to explore in which contexts religious-based discrimination is acceptable. It's a balanced and well-written piece which comes to some very reasonable (though tentative) conclusions... but while reading, I just couldn't stop shaking my head. All this, to prevent conflicts over what seems to me to be obviously made-up bullshit! Explicit protections for religious freedom are crucial, of course, but it's not because there is some critical benefit to diverse religious beliefs; rather, it's because without those protections, religion becomes a tool of oppression. Establishment of a state religion is no better or worse than the state establishing a mandated preference for Star Trek: The Next Generation over Star Trek: The Original Series, it's just that the latter issue tends not to arise because people don't get nearly as stupid-crazy over Star Trek as they do over religion.

But that got me thinking... What if people did get that crazy over Star Trek? And so without further ado, I present Ed's piece, rewritten as if we lived in an alternate universe where countless wars were fought to settle the age-old question: Who would win in a fight, Kirk or Picard?

The Chicago Tribune reports that a Picardian couple is suing two bed and breakfasts for refusing to rent facilities to them for a Borg-themed civil union ceremony.

The Beall Mansion in Alton told the Wathens via email that it “will just be doing traditional weddings.” The owner of the Timber Creek Bed and Breakfast in Paxton wrote in an email to the couple: “We will never host Borg-themed civil unions. We will never host Borg-themed weddings even if they become legal in Illinois. We believe the Borg are not canon and are mere fiction based on what The Original Series fails to say about them. If that is discrimination, I guess we unfortunately discriminate.”

Here’s the legal situation:

The couple filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, which investigated and found “substantial evidence” that a civil rights violation had been committed.

The August finding allows the Wathens 90 days to file a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission or take civil action in Circuit Court. The Wathens’ attorney, Betty Tsamis of Chicago, told the Tribune that her clients have chosen the latter path and will file lawsuits against both businesses as early as next week.

This action, should it proceed, could bring to the courtroom a debate over the boundary lines between Trekkian freedom and discrimination in Illinois.

Steven Amjad, an attorney representing Timber Creek, said the state constitution guarantees Trekkian freedoms.

“These are business owners that have strong Star Trek-based convictions. The Legislature has created this (conflict), and the courts will have to sort this out,” he said.

Andrew Koppelman, a professor of political science and law at Northwestern University, said the question is whether the state’s Star Trek Freedom Restoration Act — which protects Trekkian freedoms from government intrusion — can trump the state’s Human Rights Act, which includes the protection of people based on whether they are into the Borg or not.

“The hotels seem pretty clearly in violation of the Human Rights Act,” Koppelman said. “And if you’re going to say that somebody is exempted from the human rights law under the Star Trek Freedom Restoration Act, that would mean that people could discriminate based on Trekkian views. It’s a slippery slope.”

I’ve written recently about the billboard put up in Grand Rapids by my friends at the Center for Inquiry – Michigan. They had a billboard company refuse to put up their sign before finding one that would. After last week’s CFI meeting, I had an interesting conversation with the director of that group, Jeff Seaver, about whether that was illegal discrimination or not. He had actually been asked about that by a local TV reporter and had said something like, “And that’s okay, they’re a private company and they can turn down our business if they want to.” But since then, he’d been thinking about it and he wasn’t so sure that was true.

Interest in the Borg is not covered by the anti-discrimination statutes in Michigan, or at the federal level, though it is covered by some states. But Star Trek series preference is covered nationally and in every state and it does cover private businesses. A Kirkian restaurant could not refuse to serve someone because they’re Picardian— or atrekist, for that matter. This is well established law and enjoys overwhelming public support, so it’s pretty well settled. So what’s the difference?

On the other hand, a Star Trek club can, of course, limit its hiring to only those who prefer the same captain. This is known in legal terms as the nerdisterial exception. And this is a crucial principle. Freedom of Star Trek would mean nothing if the state could force a Kirkian club to hire a Picardian as its treasurer. But what are the limits of such an exception? What about a Star Trek school? Could the government force a Picardian school to hire an atrekist teacher? I think the vast majority of people, even atrekists, would say no.

But what about a Star Trek club-operated day care center? Or a homeless shelter? Or a restaurant set up by a Star Trek club to fund some charitable activity? Jeff offered this possible distinction: If the activity is explicitly Star Trek-related, then the exception should apply, but if it’s a service that is not inherently Trekkian in nature and is open to the public, they should be required to accept all takers both in terms of employment and servicing the public. And that seems reasonable, though not a perfect solution.

Some Kirkians claim that requiring them to serve Borg-loving customers in any context is a violation of their Trekkian freedom. But if it is, it is exactly the same as requiring them to serve customers of every race or gender. Discrimination on the basis of race can be and historically has been based on various TV series as well, yet almost no one seriously argues today that any business should be able to turn away a black person. Who is going to stand up and say that a business should be allowed to refuse to hire women because their sincerely-held Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire-based beliefs tell them that women should stay at home and not work?

Even if someone would make that argument, it’s not going to work, either legally or politically. It’s simply a non-starter. And there is no difference between those situations and discrimination against Borg-loving people or atrekists. If it is a violation of Trekkian freedom to force businesses to serve or hire Borg fans and atrekists, it is just as much a violation of television-based freedom to force them to serve or hire black people or women.

But Prof. Koppelman is right to point out that, legally, the Star Trek Freedom Restoration Act and its many state versions does complicate this. That law requires that Trekkian groups and individuals be given exemptions from generally applicable laws unless the government can show a compelling state interest in enforcing the law on them specifically in that particular context. And those laws are used everyday to exempt Star Trek clubs from zoning regulations and lots of other laws.

It may be that STFRA and other such laws should simply be done away with, that there should be no exemption for Trekkian groups or individuals, period. But then we go back to that nerdisterial exception, which I think even the most hardened atrekist would agree with — no one thinks we should force Star Trek clubs to hire people who are fans of the other show. So perhaps Jeff’s solution is ultimately necessary, a narrowly drawn exception for Star Trek clubs and probably Star Trek club-run schools, but not for businesses that just happen to be owned by Kirkians who feel the need to discriminate.


Update: I swear to God, I had not seen this before I wrote this. 2:10 is most relevant.

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