In an astonishing op-ed, two members of Congress have equated carnitas burritos and human beings. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia, both Republicans, present the argument that the values that allow the management of Chipotle to choose its suppliers of pork products ought to allow them – or anybody else with a business – to restrict the rights of some groups of people.
In spite of the very serious language with which their arguments are presented, it is hard to avoid bursting out in laughter at the premise that a CEO’s decision to contract with slaughterhouses that meet certain sustainability standards justifies the decisions of other CEOs to refuse to hire or serve, say, gay people because of deeply held convictions. But once you stop giggling, there is an important question to ask: exactly what is the difference?
Since the legislators argue by analogy, let me start there as well. A friend of mine owns a business that sells building and maintenance supplies. It has been in his family for more than 65 years. Some years ago, the maintenance supervisor of a local non-profit put in a substantial order. He patronized the business on the basis of fair prices, great service and the integrity of the owner. A couple of days later the supervisor was back to cancel the order. His employer had heard that the owner was a member of a faith community different than the non-profit’s. They simply could not do business with him.
Let’s be clear: the prices were fair, the service was great. The business stocked everything the customer needed. The owner took no position on the mission of the non-profit. But the personal life that the owner lived as a member of a mainstream Abrahamic faith community was anathema to the values of the funders of the non-profit. So they took their business elsewhere. The non-profit’s decision ran afoul of public accommodation law because their sole reason for canceling the order was based on the attribution of status to an entire class of people.
In the case of Chipotle, the business practices of certain suppliers of pork products fell short of the prior expectations of the company. Chipotle could not provide carnitas to its customers in consonance with its values related to how the meat was produced, so they took their business elsewhere.
A business owner (or any customer) may choose to do business with anyone on any standard whatsoever. But if the owner disadvantages an entire class of people, even on the basis of sincerely held beliefs about race, ethnicity, faith or, I would contend, sexual orientation or gender identity, our long national history of considering such questions suggests that the law will not protect prejudice, no matter how sincerely asserted.
I have no axe to grind with Chipotle. As an adherent of my tradition’s dietary restrictions, where they get their pork is very low on my priority list. But I do know that a burrito does not enjoy the protection of public accommodation laws.
That’s why my friend’s rights were violated and Chipotle’s former supplier’s rights were not.
The alarming nonsense presented by these two members of Congress suggests that some potential employees or customers are more equal than others in the eyes of the law. Moreover, they imply that something intrinsic – race, orientation, physical ability – is grounds for exclusion simply because the owner says so. They wish to preserve the right of an individual to say, “I will not hire you or sell to you simply because you sit in a different pew.”
Sen. Lankford and Rep. Forbes ought to know the difference between religious freedom and commerce, but it seems they don’t. Please consider helping them clarify by sending each of them a coupon for the nearest Chipotle and a copy of the First Amendment. Using one is a matter of personal preference, the other most definitely not.