Property and Sovereignty Imbricated: Why Religion Is Not an Excuse to Discriminate in Public Accommodations
May a hotel owner that objects to same-sex marriage on religious grounds refuse to host a same-sex wedding in its ballroom or deny the couple the right to book the honeymoon suite? Do public accommodation laws oppress religious dissidents by forcing them to act contrary to their religious beliefs or does discriminatory exclusion threaten equal access to the market economy and deny equal citizenship to LGBTQ persons? Answering these questions requires explaining why one property claim should prevail over another and why one liberty should prevail when it clashes with another. And answering those questions requires analysis of the relationship between property and sovereignty.
Sovereign power both creates and regulates the types of property rights that can be tolerated in a free and democratic society that values each person equally. Should we view sovereignty as a threat to property or property as a threat to sovereignty? Libertarians choose the first and liberals the second. But this is the wrong way to understand the relation between property and sovereignty. Property and sovereignty are not separate and independent concepts or spheres of social life that can be brought into relationship with each other. Rather, they are imbricated; they overlap like roof tiles. Our aspiration to live in a free and democratic society places certain constraints on both property and sovereignty. Such societies do not recognize absolute power, whether public or private. Free and democratic societies are committed to a substantive vision of both social relations and politics. We have fruitful debates about property and sovereignty and, in the end, must construct a legal system that effects an acceptable compromise between access and exclusion in the property regime.
Our historic practices regarding racial and other forms of discrimination and our evolving norms suggest that public accommodation laws enable access to the marketplace without regard to invidious discrimination. Religious freedom cannot operate to deny equal citizenship or opportunity. For that reason, a same-sex couple should not have to call ahead to see if they are welcome to book the honeymoon suite. Public accommodation laws do not infringe on legitimate property rights or religious freedoms; rather, they define the legitimate contours of liberty and property in a society that treats each person with equal concern and respect.