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April 2, 2015 — The modern equivalent of the lunch counter

Throughout the United States in the 20th Century, there were Woolworth department stores in just about every mid-sized and major city. Many of them served meals, but in many Woolworth stores in the deep South, there was a tacit policy that black people would not be served at the lunch counter at the front.

It was 55 years ago when four black students in Greensboro, N.C. challenged the policy by sitting down at the counter, asking for service, then refusing to leave when they were refused service.

It was a seminal moment in the civil rights movement, one of a number of instances in which black people demanded their rights to fair access to public accommodations such as buses, universities, and even lunch counters run by private businesses.

So, in the debate over what are called “religious freedom” laws by some, and what are termed anti-gay laws by others, it’s instructive to frame the debate in terms of public accommodations on the part of private businesses.

Take, for example, the oft-cited examples of caterers, or bakers, or priests who refuse their services to same-sex couples looking to get married and have a ceremony. They would be withholding their services because of either their value system or their religious beliefs.

Conservatives, especially a number of Republican governors with heavy religious support, have been trying to make a strong statement by passing laws allowing private businesses to withdraw their services.

The problem is that there is a public which can buy these services or choose not to buy them. It’s Adam’s Smith’s “invisible hand of commerce,” which, in part, holds that in a free market, a business that opens itself up to the greatest number of people will likely do better than those restricting their product to only a select few.

The thing is, with Mike Pence having started this most recent episode in the state of Indiana, there has been a huge commercial blowback against the law passed last week. The blowback started with the NCAA, which is not only headquartered in Indiana, but is hosting the 2015 Final Four for men’s collegiate basketball.

It is interesting to note here that the NCAA has a long-standing policy of not hosting any championship event in the state of South Carolina or Mississippi because of the prominence of the Confederate battle flag on their state capitol grounds. (The NCAA carved out an exception last year allowing the South Carolina women’s basketball team to host first- and second-round games on its campus because it was not a predetermined site.)

What I find interesting, in terms of those lining up against these religious freedom bills, is that NASCAR weighed in. That’s NASCAR, a sport which has roots in the deep South, has a very white and conservative fanbase, and which resisted criticism of its main sponsor, a tobacco company, behind fluttering American flags.

It’s instructive to note that both the NCAA and NASCAR are, at heart, businesses. They don’t want to be seen as aiding and abetting a policy which doesn’t allow all of its fans equal accommodation and access (men’s field hockey excepted).

The same goes with Wal-Mart, which has been opposing a similar initiative in Arkansas.

Thing is, it’s too bad the politicians behind these laws failed to recognize the lessons learned 55 years ago.

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