The First Amendment has been an increasingly hot topic over the past several years, particularly as it relates to politics and religion. From bakery wars to the delusional Kim Davis, debates have raged over whether services may be denied to people on the basis of social politics or faith. Odds are it’s not an issue that will be resolved anytime soon.
The most recent story in this arena stems from the actions of an Office Depot employee’s denial of service:
A Rolling Meadows woman has accused Office Depot of discriminating against her Roman Catholic faith after employees told her running copies of an anti-abortion prayer violated company policy.
Last month, Maria Goldstein, 42, ordered 500 copies of “A Prayer for the Conversion of Planned Parenthood” at an Office Depot in Schaumburg to distribute at her parish the following Sunday. The handout also included statistics about abortion in the U.S. and at Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization that provides women’s and reproductive health services.
The prayer, composed by the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, an anti-abortion group, calls on God to “Bring an end to the killing of children in the womb, and bring an end to the sale of their body parts. Bring conversion to all who do this, and enlightenment to all who advocate it.”
The prayer also decries “the evil that has been exposed in Planned Parenthood and in the entire abortion industry.”
Karen Denning, a spokeswoman for Office Depot, said company policy prohibits “the copying of any type of material that advocates any form of racial or religious discrimination or the persecution of certain groups of people. It also prohibits copying any type of copyrighted material.”
“The flier contained material that advocates the persecution of people who support abortion rights,” Denning said.
The copyright restrictions are an easy out for the company here. But what of religious discrimination? On face, the conflict here seems similar to a recent case in Denver. A baker there refused to create a cake containing anti-LGBT hate speech and was sued for religious persecution by the would-be customer. The plaintiffs lost their case, as the bakery did not refuse service to all Christians, and the LGBT community was a protected class in the state, granting the bakery grounds to refuse to participate in discriminatory behavior.
That same line of argumentation may be applied here. Office Depot does not refuse all Christian service requests; it did not reject Goldstein’s business because of her faith. Instead, they contend that the rejection is a function of not participating in discrimination against individuals whose beliefs run counter to her own, support which she casts as “evil.” In theory, that could be considered disparagement, granting weight to Office Depot’s claim. Such a policy is not exclusive to the pro-birth movement or other Christian causes; it could and would be applied to any group advancing an argument that encourages discrimination or disparagement against a protected class.
There’s another line of argumentation being neglected here, though, because such speech is not just a function of disparaging protected classes of faith. Technically, women are also considered a protected class. Technically, Planned Parenthoods are major providers of life-saving women’s healthcare. Technically, abortion and contraception are a form of women’s healthcare. Technically, to disparage women seeking to take care of their health as “evil” might be cast as discriminatory behavior.
Why doesn’t this argument get applied here? The unfortunate answer is that conversations related to women’s healthcare and bodily autonomy have been poisoned by religious dogma. This type of discrimination against women is justified under the banner of religious belief and its protections under the First Amendment. One would hope that separation of Church and State would prevail when it comes to reproductive rights, but that hasn’t been the case. Instead, the current legal regime continues to be guided by religious dogma.
Ultimately, Office Depot had a right to do what they did. If relying on the recent case in Denver helps defend such behavior — behavior that ultimately stands up for women — then good. But nonetheless, how frustrating to know that discrimination against women is not valid enough a reason to deny service here.