Rules are for Schmucks: What is Discrimination, Really?

This article is not about law, or ethics, but simply about the reasonable use of a single word. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty told Alice, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Outside of Wonderland, though, it helps if words can actually communicate a finite idea.

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its condemnation of President Obama’s executive order banning sexual orientation discrimination at federal contractors, it attempted to flip things around by claiming, “In the name of forbidding discrimination, this order implements discrimination.”

The bishops are not alone in using this phraseology. Protestant rabble-rouser Matt Barber threatened a “coming Christian revolt” on the grounds that “under the guise of ‘anti-discrimination,’ Christians today face discrimination at unprecedented levels.” In Hillsborough County, Florida, when commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance banning sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace, an opponent testified, “If you pass this measure, it will result of discrimination against Christians and other people of faith and deeply held moral convictions who believe that homosexual behavior is not normal and violates God’s moral plan.”

In Walton, Kentucky, a bank teller insisted on initiating religious conversations with her customers. After some complained, she was repeatedly ordered to stop doing this, first orally and then in writing. None of these orders fazed her; when she was finally fired, she filed a lawsuit to complain that she was being “discriminated against for exercising her religious freedoms.”

In Irvine, California, Sikhs filed a “religious discrimination” lawsuit against a go-kart track that refused to allow them to ride without removing their turbans and scarves, consistent with a general policy against allowing any hats, visors, ties, or even necklaces on their equipment.

Words matter. No one likes to be accused of “discrimination.” The instinctive reaction of decent people hearing such an accusation is to step back and consider whether we in fact are doing something wrong.

So what does this word actually mean? gives a concise definition: “treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit.”

If Congress passes a law I don’t like—say, renaming my local airport in honor of Ronald Reagan—has Congress discriminated against me? Not really. They may have upset me, but they haven’t discriminated against me because they haven’t made any distinction based on any category to which I belong. Humpty-Dumpty might say that I belong to the category of “Reagan-dislikers,” and Congress has therefore discriminated against Reagan-dislikers by naming an airport to taunt us. That would stretch the definition so far, though, as to render the word meaningless. Every action “discriminates” by not being some other –action—I would have discriminated against milk by having a cup of coffee or discriminated against standing by sitting at my desk. If a word is distorted to mean everything, it is left meaning nothing at all. The world deserves a word to describe the common practice of deliberately treating members of a racial, ethnic, gender, age, sexual orientation, or religious category differently for the sole reason that they are members of that category. That word is “discrimination,” and twisting it to mean something else belittles the significance of practices that truly fit the definition.

It is entirely possible to discriminate against people based on their religion. It happens in private life to American Muslims (and people who simply look like Muslims) all the time. It used to happen to American Catholics and Jews all the time as well, though that has diminished in recent decades. In Israel today, there is official discrimination against non-Jews in a variety of state-funded benefits, accompanied by a bureaucratic definition of what precisely constitutes a “Jew” eligible for aid. Many Muslim-majority nations have statutes discriminating against non-Muslims (e.g., for the holding of public offices).

Not all discrimination is bad. An orchestra or sports team that discriminates against those lacking in talent is not objectionable. But discrimination based on a category that has nothing to do with the legitimate purpose of the discriminator is normally frowned on. An orchestra or sports team that said, “We don’t hire Christians, no matter how well they play” would not be one that comports with humanist values.

With this definition in mind, did the go-kart track discriminate against Sikhs? It did not. If it had said “No Sikhs allowed,” that would have been discriminatory. But when it says “No headgear allowed,” that doesn’t single out Sikhs. It simply creates a safer experience for the patrons and employees of the track.

Was the Kentucky bank teller/evangelist discriminated against? She was not. The bank undoubtedly continues to employ many members of her denomination, and would continue to employ her if she hadn’t deliberately disobeyed orders to stop bothering customers. If another teller were to annoy customers with political harangues, he or she would deserve firing as well.

Did the Hillsborough County Commissioners discriminate against Christians and other people of faith who believe that “homosexual behavior is not normal?” Not even close, any more than Congress discriminated against me when it renamed my local airport after Ronald Reagan. Discriminating and irritating are two entirely different concepts.

And does the executive order banning sexual orientation discrimination at federal contractors discriminate against Catholics, as the bishops maintain? Nope. The order comes nowhere close to saying “Catholic-run organizations cannot get federal contracts.” It doesn’t require any Catholic to practice homosexuality, or to agree that homosexual activity is not a sin. It simply says that government contracts are about business, not about philosophy. The government wants its business done by contractors who hire people solely on their qualifications for the job, whether they are black, white, Italian, female, Muslim, or gay. Many ordinary Catholics have been doing that all along, without the need for an order.

In fact, what the bishops are advocating is–discrimination—in their favor. They want to be treated differently from everyone else because they belong to a particular religious category.  All they are really doing is misusing the word to wheedle public sympathy. They’d claim they were being “tortured” if they thought they could get away with it. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with claiming “discrimination,” either.