Liberalism and discrimination

The Peel is a Melbourne gay bar that, according to its owner Tom McFeely, isn’t gay enough. He applied for an exemption to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act, legislation that would otherwise forbid him from keeping out women and straight men. And yesterday in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal he was granted that exemption.

According to The Age, the decision was not met with universal support:

WHEN Collingwood hotelier Tom McFeely decided to fight for the right to refuse entry to heterosexuals, he braced himself for a backlash. And a barrage of angry talkback callers proved him right yesterday.

But should McFeely even have had to apply for such an exemption? Anti-discrimination law is an issue that has divided liberals. There is a version of liberalism which holds that the way the state should treat its citizens – as impartially as possible – is a model for all institutions in civil society as well. Liberal states create space for people to live according to their own assessment of what makes for a good life, whether or not other people approve of it. But in a liberal society, the state may be the most powerful single institution, but private power has a large impact as well. To create space for the liberal individual, private as well as public power needs to be regulated. In alliance with egalitarian philosophies, this liberal idea helps explain why we have legislation prohibiting discrimination based on a wide variety of attributes.

Another version of liberalism holds that anti-discrimination law undermines freedom of association, the right to choose who we associate with and on what terms. Continue reading “Liberalism and discrimination”