Revisiting Lexington: What Can We Learn From the Red Hen Fiasco
By John Towey
The recent kerfuffle which resulted in White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, being asked to leave a local Lexington, Virginia restaurant, sorely reminds us of the divisive political animosity that threatens the cohesion of our nation. Initially a quiet event, the Press Secretary’s story only gained national media attention after Sanders tweeted the following day explaining the event. The controversial run in, which occurred at the Red Hen restaurant in one of Virginia’s most-beloved and historic college towns, has now predictably escalated into the latest skirmish in a long line of dustups between the political right and left.
According to the Washington Post, the exchange was civil. The manager of the restaurant communicated to Sanders directly that she and her employees share views antithetical to those espoused by the Trump administration. After deliberating with staff, the manager of the Red Hen chose to refuse service to Sanders due to her involvement in the administration’s policies.
The political right, Trump coalitionists, and those disturbed by discriminatory action on face are decrying the Red Hen fiasco as everything from a failure in civility to the hideous embodiment of a systemic anti-Trump and anti-conservative bias working in the country. While the Red Hen’s refusal of service proceeds from a discriminatory disposition, the restaurant did act lawfully and well within the purview of Virginia public accommodation laws which do not prohibit discrimination on the basis of political belief.
Found in Chapter 39, Virginia Code, the statute reads, “It is the policy of the Commonwealth to: Safeguard all individuals within the Commonwealth from unlawful discrimination because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, martial status, or disability, in places of public accommodation.” The stipulations of the Virginia statute are in line with the jurisprudence of the other states which have chosen to omit political affiliation as a qualifying protection in anti-discrimination laws for public accommodations. The only notable exceptions to this are found in Washington D.C. and a few municipalities which hold political affiliation on equal ground with race and religious belief.
Despite the legality of the Red Hen’s actions, the restaurant’s decision has left many angered and concerned that their support for certain politicians and policies is pushing them to the periphery of the “approved” political orthodoxy. Such sentiments create the potential for institutions of the opposite political leaning to retaliate with similar policies which refuse service to those they disagree with.
With political relations seemingly growing more hostile by the day, would a legislative fix to include political affiliation in the framework of anti-discrimination public accommodation laws be wise? According to a study conducted by the research firm, Growth for Knowledge, a majority of Americans support the right of a small business to engage in free speech by refusing service based on their convictions. The study found that 61 percent of those polled believe that self-employed individuals and small mom-and-pop businesses should have this right unconditionally. When dealing with larger corporations, approval halved to where only 31 percent of participants agreed. While this is only one poll, it shows that Americans, on the whole, understand the sanctity of this right and will support its continuation.
In principle this may very well be sound, but how do we practically combat the problem of discrimination in the business world? One way would be to defer to the free market and allow individuals to dictate the success of businesses through their decisions of whether or not to patronize them. The brilliance of the free market system is based, in part, on the idea that the success of a business is a result of the decisions it makes regarding its operation and services. When businesses go political, they understand that their actions can potentially alienate a portion of their client base. Understanding the intersection of free speech rights and protection against discrimination is instrumental to balancing the two. This customer-choice approach may not fix the tense political climate we face, but it is at least a start.
John Towey is a senior studying politics and economics in the Honors Program at Ave Maria University. He is currently an intern at the James Madison Institute.