Wednesday, Apr 02 2014 06:00 AM

The Human Scene: Thoughts on the limits of opinion

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There is an amazing variety of opinion in our society. That's a good thing. Some of those opinions are wise, well-thought out, and some of them are really loony. That's okay. We have a right to our opinions, wise or foolish. It's the American way. You may think I have the dumbest opinions the world has ever seen. But you do not have the legal right to insist that I change my opinions.

But there are limits to how, where, and when I can act on those opinions. I'm driving 65 in a 35mph zone, because I think the speed limit is too slow. Fine. I have the right to think that, but if I act on it, and drive 65, I'll probably get a ticket. I may think it's immoral to eat Jello. Fine. I have the right to believe that. And nobody can make me eat Jello, or serve it in my home. But unless the FDA says Jello poses a health threat, it's unlikely I could get the stores and restaurants to stop selling Jello, or keep my neighbor from serving it in his home.

If I drive a car, I have to have a license and insurance. I may believe that requirement is an improper government intrusion into my rights. But the privilege to drive carries with it the responsibility to follow rules put in place for the safety and order of society, whether I think it's proper or not. If society is to function properly, there have to be restrictions on some kinds of behavior. The alternative is chaos.

There is a debate going on in our society about the proper limits of opinion. Does a pharmacist have the right to refuse to fill a prescription because of his religious opinions? Does a restaurant owner, or a clerk at the courthouse, or a motel manager, have the right to refuse service to gays, or Muslims, or undocumented workers because of his religious or political opinions?

A friend of mine was injured in an accident in Mississippi in the 1950s. The hospital left him on a gurney in the hallway for many hours, because he was black. (Or so they thought. He was actually from India.) When all the whites were treated, they finally "got to" him.

Should there not have been some limit on that behavior, even though the emergency room staff didn't want to treat "blacks?"

It seems to me that when people serve the public, there have to be limits on the impact of their personal opinions on the performance of their public function. We usually have no problem with the idea that with a business or professional classification and license, there are certain responsibilities attached.

A motel has to provide security, fire protection, healthy environment, etc. Restaurants must provide clean, safe food, have certain equipment in the kitchen, and submit to inspection by the government on a regular basis. If the owners can't live with those limits, they won't be in the business very long. If a cook is unwilling to wash his hands after using the restroom, he shouldn't be a cook in a restaurant. He serves the public. That means there are some necessary rules he must follow.

Several states now are seeking to enact legislation allowing those who serve the public to refuse to serve some elements of the public for reasons of religious or personal opinion. The big focus, of course, is the gay population. But it doesn't stop there. It opens the door for just about anyone to refuse to serve just about anyone, on the basis of religious or personal opinions they may hold.

I think that is a very dangerous idea. It legitimizes the basest of instincts and removes discrimination beyond the reach of law and basic human rights. In the name of personal freedom, it strikes at the heart and core of any real personal freedom.

JIM DINSMORE lives in Tehachapi.

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