Discrimination laws—as applied to private parties—play on the fear that, without government to keep people from favoring one person or group over another, social progress would be set back by decades. They fear that protected groups would be excluded from jobs, schools, neighborhoods, and places of business.
The criteria that foster inclusion in the so-called “protected classes” are not just the old “race, creed and color” divisions. Discrimination laws continue to create more privileged categories based on national origin, age, sex, family composition, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation or gender identity, and even a person’s genetic code.
These laws proliferate in a downward spiral of ridiculousness, and there is a long way to fall. Recently the government of Greece added to its definition of “disabled” persons. The list now includes the categories of pyromaniacs, compulsive gamblers, fetishists, sadomasochists, pedophiles, exhibitionists, and kleptomaniacs. It would be pointless trying to guess where this fire will jump next, for imagination simply fails.
Many discrimination laws seem to be advocated more for political advantage or to push a social agenda that many others find abhorrent, but no one disagrees with the underlying truth that people ought to be treated with justice and dignity.
Like every law that attempts to force people to be nice to one another, discrimination laws are doomed to fail at anything beyond a superficial level. We may prevent or punish direct harm, but people are not made compassionate by threats of violence. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said:
“It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me.“
The Church makes two important points: 1) the Christian duty to treat other people with respect and 2) the inability of government to create that result by force of law. The Catechism is worth quoting:
“Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.” No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a “neighbor,” a brother.” CCC ¶ 1931.
Equality under the law is achieved just as well when every man is trampled as when every man is free.
When considering modern anti-discrimination laws, we should be mindful that the discrimination laws of an earlier era—the malignant Jim Crow laws—were also brought to us by government: racial segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains, segregation of the military, public schools, public places, and public transportation. All such laws deservedly came to an end in the sixties.
If equality under the law had been the end of it, the wounds of that injustice might have begun to heal by now, but the government hardly missed a beat after ending publicly enforced segregation. Instead, the state began to dictate to private companies which groups of people must be served or hired, even to the point of creating quota systems and affirmative action, thereby enshrining many of the evils it sought to eliminate.
Discrimination laws are counterproductive. The single place that favoring one person over another ought to be legally forbidden is in government. Unfortunately, government at its core is an institution hopelessly dedicated to favoring one man over another; taking from one and giving to another.
On the other hand, attempting to punish discrimination by private individuals is a futile exercise that does more harm than good. With the expansion of protected classes of workers, employers are forced to take greater care in their hiring decisions. Not many managers are likely to hire a person who may not work out when they know that the applicant cannot be fired without raising the possibility of a discrimination lawsuit. Of course, no employer would admit—and we will never know—how many pregnant women, blacks, disabled or old guys like me might have been given jobs if it were not for discrimination laws that make us radioactive.
The government could not have designed a better system to keep hatreds alive. If the federal government had stopped with the repeal of earlier discrimination laws, there was a chance that old hurts would heal and new resentments would not be fed, but government cannot leave well enough alone. Equality under the law might have been as simple as letting everyone live their lives without meddling from big brother, but within the logic of government, equality under the law is achieved just as well when every man is trampled as when every man is free.