When asked about religious freedom, Libertarian presidential nominee and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson repeated the liberal talking points about the dangers of “discrimination.” In doing so, he might have sacrificed his chance to earn the support of social conservatives who distrust Donald Trump.
“I just see religious freedom, as a category, of just being a black hole,” Johnson told the Washington Examiner‘s Tim Carney in an interview at the Democratic National Convention. Rather than emphasizing a business owner’s freedom to deny serving a public event which might violate his or her conscience, he took a distinctly un-libertarian position.
When asked if he thinks “it’s the federal government’s job to prevent—” Johnson didn’t even allow Carney to finish. “Discrimination? Yes,” he said. When asked, “In all cases?” he replied, “Yes. Yes, in all cases. Yes.”
For a self-styled “libertarian” talking about religious freedom, this is truly a terrifying answer. After all, in his book Capitalism and Freedom, the libertarian economist Milton Friedman argued that discrimination costs money, and that the government need not outlaw it, as the market will compensate for it eventually, as people act in their own interests.
The current religious freedom debate largely comes down to a simple question, which has worked out in various cases (The bakery owned by Aaron and Melissa Klein in Oregon, for example):
“Does a business owner have the right to deny service to a public event he or she disagrees with on religious grounds?”
Specifically, Carney asked about the New Mexico case, where Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin refused to photograph a same-sex wedding. The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that this refusal violated the state’s public accommodations law, which bans discrimination by those offering services to the public. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed this decision to stand.
The libertarian position should be an emphatic yes to this question, for various reasons. The right of contract allows either party to refuse a transaction. There are countless others who would be happy to serve a same-sex wedding (in the Kleins’ case, there was a bakery which made a cake free of charge for the lesbian couple in question).
Most fundamentally, however, there is a huge difference between denying to sell goods to a specific person (discrimination) and refusing to take an artistic role in a public event.
Next Page: Why Johnson’s stance on religious freedom isn’t even libertarian.
Libertarians by definition believe in minimal government intrusion into the free commerce of people. There is a governmental interest in preventing discrimination, but it should not extend to forcing people to partake in public events with which they disagree.
It is one thing for the state to acknowledge a gay wedding, it is another to force a Christian who believes marriage is between a man and a woman to publicly serve an event proclaiming a marriage between a man and a man or a woman and a woman.
Yet Johnson calls the refusal to take part in such events “discrimination,” and warns against the slippery slope of allowing it.
When asked about the New Mexico case, he responded, “If we allow for discrimination — if we pass a law that allows for discrimination on the basis of religion — literally, we’re gonna open up a can of worms.”
“You’re narrowly looking at a situation where if you broaden that, I just tell you — on the basis of religious freedom, being able to discriminate … discrimination will exist in places we never dreamed of,” Johnson warned.
Carney asked if the current federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) could be applied to protect the wedding photographer or the Little Sisters of the Poor.
To this, Johnson responded, “I think what you’re going to end up doing is open up a plethora of discrimination that you never believed could exist. And it’ll start with Muslims.”
“My crystal ball is that you are going to get discriminated against by somebody because it’s against their religion,” he added. “Somehow you have offended their religion because you’ve walked in and you’re denied service. You.”
This is the typical liberal argument in these cases: refusing to serve a gay wedding is the same kind of discrimination as refusing service to a customer on the basis of their sexual orientation. If we allow discrimination in this case, we will have to allow it in all cases.
It is one thing for a liberal to hold these views, but quite another for a self-styled libertarian to parrot them.
Next Page: Could Johnson have learned this from his running-mate William Weld?
In an interview with Reason.com, Johnson’s running mate, former Massachusetts governor William Weld gave a hint as to where the former New Mexico governor might be getting his liberal ideas. When asked about Supreme Court justices, Weld praised notorious liberal Stephen Breyer and Obama’s pick, Merrick Garland.
When asked about members of Congress with whom he would work well, Weld named Susan Collins! As RedState’s Leon Wolf explained, Collins is “one of the most terrible people in Congress, from both a conservative and a Libertarian perspective.”
Wolf speculated that Weld “is just engaging in rank nostalgia for the days when he and his fellow country club, big government Republicans had a constituency.”
This kind of big-government Republicanism is often willing to accept the liberal view on social issues in the name of pro-business policies. It is possible Weld’s influence has pushed Johnson to parrot the “discrimination” line when it comes to religious freedom, out of some misplaced desire to placate business interests.
Then again, this may just be Johnson’s default position. He is both pro-choice and supportive of gay marriage, and the idea of a conscientious objection to serving a gay wedding may be foreign to him.
When asked about how he would bring #NeverTrump conservatives into his camp, Johnson responded well. He told PJ Media, “I think the majority of Republicans, I think the majority of people in this country do appreciate smaller government, that government doesn’t have the answer. … And with regard to whatever you are socially, who cares, as long as you don’t force me to do the same.”
— Tyler O’Neil (@Tyler2ONeil) July 21, 2016
Does he realize that his position on religious liberty is exactly that? Forcing Christian business owners to lend their creative talents to an event they don’t agree with certainly qualifies as forcing them to agree with a social position. But to Johnson, it’s just discrimination.