Sarah Huckabee Sanders

Sarah Huckabee Sanders Got Booted From a Restaurant, but Florists and Photographers Should Have to Work Gay Weddings?

Let's get behind economic freedom for everyone, even when we don't like how they use it.


Wedding flower arrangements
Laurie Gouley / Pexels

On Friday—I'm guessing you've heard—President Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was calmly asked to leave the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, by its owner, Stephanie Wilkinson. Sanders did did so without a fuss.

The rest of the country could learn a thing or two from the exchange.

Many, especially on the political right, have responded with outrage. A different Red Hen restaurant was egged, presumably by confused Trump supporters. Unflattering reviews were left for Wilkinson's eatery on Yelp. People milled around outside the next day, shouted things from car windows, and tried to flood the system with fake reservations, according to reports. Red Hen's management ended up deciding not to open Saturday evening.

There are good and reasonable arguments to be made that responding to political disagreement with a total refusal to engage in either conversation or normal business dealings is bad for the country. The Washington Post editorial board came out against Wilkinson's move, writing that "those who are insisting that we are in a special moment justifying incivility should think for a moment how many Americans might find their own special moment."

Civility is great, of course, as are dialogue and debate. But so is economic freedom, including the right of private individuals to decide when, where, how, and with whom to do business.

Conservatives should be careful what they demand in cases like these. Most of them likely support the right of a religious baker not to make a custom cake for a same-sex marriage celebration—and rightly so. As important and valuable as it is to treat others with respect, especially given the current toxic political culture, good behavior should never be forced on us at the expense of our right to live out our peaceful convictions. Words are not violence. Neither is politely turning someone out of your restaurant or shop.

People on the left might also use this moment to re-evaluate a few things. The insistence that wedding vendors be required by law to work gay weddings is often framed in terms of civility as well, with appeals to the deep emotional harm and "deprivation of personal dignity" that can come from being refused service.

But as the exchange between Wilkinson and Sanders shows, one person's bigotry is another person's morality-driven business decision—and it is possible to survive such an affront without falling completely to pieces. The situations are not exactly alike, but they're not far off. In each, the proprieter of a private establishment acted in accordance with the demands of his or her conscience on a politically charged question. And in each, those turned away had many other options conveniently at their disposal. Arguably, the florists and photographers actually have a stronger case against being compelled to enter a commercial relationship against their will, since wedding services are generally creatively tailored to a customer's wishes and intended to capture the ethos of his or her particular event. (They're also generally arranged via contract in advance.) Personally, however, I think we should stop looking for narrow categories of economic activities we'll allow and begin instead with a presumption of liberty. Sometimes people will use their freedom to do things we don't like, and that has to be OK.

I'm all for living in harmony, to include good-faith engagement through trade and discourse even with those you think are horribly, and even horrifyingly, wrong. Civility is a worthy ideal, but it is not the only or highest consideration in most situations—and it certainly should not be imposed upon us by the state.