A friend on Facebook recently posted about the situation with the Rockettes performing at Trump’s inauguration, contrasting it with the situation of the baker refusing to make a cake for a gay couple. My response touched upon a number of the tensions inherent in our American Experiment, and so I decided to expand it into a post.
When considering this issue, there are a number of “rights” that come into play. There is freedom of speech, which generally gives you the right to express your opinion, whether that expression is through words or through action (as the courts have recognized that certain actions, be it flag burning, pornography, or silent protests, are all forms of protected speech). There is your freedom to practice your religion, which generally applies to what you do, as opposed to imposing your beliefs upon others (although there is a recognized tension there). There is equal protection under the law, which generally means freedom from discrimination for protected classes. These classes are typically based on things like race, creed, sex, sexual orientation, and so on.
So let’s look at the baker who refuses to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. He’s a businessman who has the right to serve whomever he wants, right? Actually, based on the sign, it is to refuse service to anyone. If you are his establishment, causing a ruckus and harassing other patrons, he can refuse to serve you and ask you to leave. If you aren’t wearing a shirt and shoes, he could refuse to serve you. But could he refuse to serve you just because you were black? Just because you were a woman? Because you were Jewish? No. Those are protected classes, and equal protection under the law trumps (so to speak) his right to refuse service. The courts have ruled that sexual orientation is a protected class, so he couldn’t refuse to bake you a cake just because you were gay (irrespective of his personal beliefs). The same is true for a government worker issuing a marriage license.
Let’s look at the Rockettes. In general, when you work for someone you need to follow your employment contract and what your employer says, unless it bumps into equal protection under the law. Individuals can exercise their freedom of speech by refusing to work for Donald Trump’s inauguration; this refusal isn’t based on Trump being a protected class, but because of his political actions — his speech, in other words. You have freedom of speech in America, but you don’t have freedom of consequences from that speech. Depending on what you do or what you say, those consequences could include losing your job. That’s the risk.
With respect to the Rockettes, in general, if their employer has signed a contract for them to perform, they need to perform. They don’t have to be happy about it. Within the boundaries of their contract, they could express their speech through costume modifications, signs, etc. They could individually refuse to perform, but their employer would have the right (but not the obligation) to terminate their employment. They are free to express their speech, but the place they express it may come with consequences. In the case of the Rockettes, their employer has indicated there will not be consequences if an individual refuses to perform, but that ultimately was the employer’s choice.
As for Mr. Trump: The refusal of so many performers to perform should give him pause, and to ask himself, “Why?”. He should be aware enough to realize that his speech during the campaign and his speech as demonstrated by his cabinet nominations has had an impact. He should be asking himself if perhaps he should rethink what he said — and even more importantly, how he said it. Perhaps he might get more respect — and more performers — if he pledged to respect equal protection under the law, asked his followers to respect equal protection under the law, and perhaps eschewed the effort to speak within 144 characters (going instead for more nuanced and well-thought-out speech).