At first glance, Karen Alexia Palma makes a sympathetic protagonist. The Guatemalan immigrant and health care educator, a U.S. citizen, was allegedly fired from her job at a Texas clinic as a result of her religious beliefs. She's pictured cradling her dog Chiclets in a write-up over at The Washington Post, headlined "'I will always put my faith first': Catholic health educator fired for refusing to teach birth control."
From the piece:
As part of her job as a health educator, Palma taught a family planning class three times a month. For a year and a half, she said, Legacy Community Health had been willing to accommodate her religious beliefs by allowing her to play a 20-minute video about birth control instead of personally talking about it with patients. A registered nurse also was on-site to answer questions patients might have about contraceptives, she said. …
But in June, after a change in management, she said she was told she had to begin teaching patients about contraceptives and was also ordered to attend mandatory training at a Planned Parenthood location.
It's easy to cry "religious liberty" in cases like this one. But if you're tempted to do so, recall that the First Amendment starts "Congress shall make no law," not "employers shall make no policy."
I've argued over and over that Christian schools should have the right to decline to hire openly gay people and small-business owners should have the right to decline to provide services for same-sex marriage celebrations, if that's what they think is right.
But those things are only normatively true if the individual freedom of private actors matters. And if the individual freedom of private actors matters, it follows that government should be expected to meet a very high bar before it can step in and force a privately owned and operated clinic to do business with someone simply because she belongs to a protected class.
It's fine to argue that the clinic is making a poor business decision by severing ties with a qualified educator who has been on its payroll for nearly four years. It's also reasonable to argue the move was a bad call from a public-relations perspective, since arguably it would have taken minimal effort on the part of the employer to accommodate her beliefs and avoid being named in the national papers.
But Palma isn't appealing to the employer to right this wrong. She's appealing to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency with the power to compel behavior and punish dissent.
She may well be on the right side of the law—but the idea that she's on the right side of justice suffers from the fallacy of conflating two things we ought carefully to keep distinct: public vs. private actions. Of course the government should not be allowed to deny equal protection to people because of who they are or what they believe. We all have the right to be treated fairly by agents of the state who are paid with our tax dollars and empowered with a near-monopoly over the use of violence. Our rights are strong because the law is an enormously powerful weapon that must be wielded judiciously.
What we don't have a "right" to is any given private-sector job of our liking, and particularly not if we're unwilling to carry out a duty the person signing the paycheck deems a job requirement.
We shouldn't normalize using the threat of men with guns to force others into undesired business relationships. You may hate that some people will use their freedom as private actors to make hiring and firing decisions, or to turn away potential clients, because of who they love or how they worship. But it's a mistake to liken government discrimination, which must always and everywhere be combatted, to unpopular choices made by individuals operating in a private capacity. The two are not the same.