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While I was growing up in the south in the ‘60s, and discriminatory “Jim Crow” practices were slowly being dismantled, I would frequently see signs at restaurants and gas stations declaring, “THIS ESTABLISHMENT RESERVES THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE.” As I learned later, such signs were mainly a ruse, designed to lend some legitimacy to the continuation of the old ways.
Most people now understand how to strike balances between conflicting rights—balance between a patron’s right to expect service and a business owner’s right to enforce certain standards of appearance and behavior on their property, for example. It seems, however, that for some folks, the most important “right” is still the “right” to deny other people their due rights.
What exactly are those (as it says in the Declaration of Independence) “unalienable” rights, anyway? This question has been explored periodically—most notably, in the drafting of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” following World War II—but at a time like the present, it’s worth revisiting.
So I took note when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced the formation of an advisory commission on “Unalienable Rights.” The description of the proposed body, though, was a little troubling: “The Commission will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”
“Natural law” and “natural rights” are terms that should put you on alert, as they are sometimes used to justify status-quo inequalities and injustices. The use of the phrase “founding principles” implies a desire to “turn back the clock”—at our nation’s founding, remember, not everyone was considered equal in terms of rights.
“What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right?” Pompeo asked while introducing the initiative. “How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn but simply by virtue of our humanity, belong to us? Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we—all of us, every member of our human family—are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights?”
That last sentence in particular ought to give any American pause, as it questions one of the fundamental assertions on which our very existence as a republic was originally based.
The composition of the commission has also raised eyebrows. Though diverse on the surface—a Muslim cleric and a rabbi are among the members, along with academics from such august institutions as Stanford and Harvard—most members share a religiously-based opposition to abortion rights and the rights of sexual minorities. Many also support policies of certain American allies, such as Saudi Arabia, that run counter of current American understandings of human rights.
Organizations like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch have greeted the initiative with statements of concern, while conservative “pro-family” groups have hailed it. The expectation seems to be that the commission will back the idea that “religious freedom” implies a right to restrict or discriminate against those with different beliefs.
But I would like to suggest a simpler approach to the commission. This approach also has a grounding in religion—namely, to the “Golden Rule” that appears in practically all religions in some form or another.
It’s easy. Just ask: What rights do each of us want for ourselves? And having identified those rights, how do we ensure that everyone else can enjoy them as well?