Jack Phillips-Colorado cake maker

Jack Phillips is the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in suburban Denver, and he doesn’t want to make wedding cakes for gay couples. In my mind, that makes him a bigot and a lousy businessman. But as a free man, he has the moral right to be a bigot, even if I believe he’s wrong.

It’s easy to support individual freedom when the individual in question is sympathetic and says all the right things. The real test of whether you support freedom or not is whether you support people who want to use their freedom to do things you don’t approve of.

This issue is at the heart of a controversy that’s raging in this country today. The battle lines are generally seen as gay people and their allies on one side vs. social conservatives and some religious people who object to homosexuality on the other side. Those on one side say that business owners must be forced to do business with gay couples against their will. Those on the other side say religious freedom is at stake and that they should be able to decide not to do business with gay and lesbian couples. But framing the issue this way misses the point.

The only real issue is whether human beings have the right to make their own choices about who they want to voluntarily associate with.

If a person has the freedom to decide who he wants to associate with, he’s free to choose to associate only with left-handed green-eyed ex-convicts if he wants. He’s free to choose to associate only with beautiful people. He’s free to choose to associate only with people of his own religious group. He’s free to shun religious people entirely. He’s free to shun gay people or Asians or people who he thinks smell funny.

In other words, a free man has the moral right to make decisions that neither you nor I agree with.

If you have a bakery that refuses to deal with gay people or black people or Muslims or any other group that some people would like to avoid, I have every right to decline to do business with you. Those of us who disapprove of those policies can do business with people whose values match up with our own. Freedom works both ways.

If I owned a bakery — or any other kind of business — I would want to do business with anyone who wanted my product or service. I would want to hire the best employees I could get for my money, and I would want all the customers I could possibly get. I wouldn’t be asking those people whether they agree with my moral or religious views.

Arizona recently considered a bill that would have allowed businesses to turn away gay customers if the owners said serving the gay customers would violate their religious beliefs. It was a huge controversy, but I couldn’t support either side.

I don’t want some law to enshrine one particular form of bigotry and pretend that’s what freedom amounts to. On the other hand, I also don’t want to insist that businesses have a moral responsibility to serve any customer they don’t want to serve. I’d rather just acknowledge the general principle that people have the right to associate with whoever they want to associate with — for whatever reason they choose, whether I agree or not.

When it was still unclear what would happen with the Arizona bill — before Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it — a Tucson, Ariz., pizza restaurant made headlines when it declared that it reserved the right not to serve legislators. Rocco’s Chicago Pizzeria posted a sign that said, “We reserve the right to refuse service to Arizona legislators.” The move was wildly popular with supporters of gay couples.

In neighboring New Mexico, a hair stylist refused to cut the hair of Gov. Susana Martinez until Martinez changes her opposition to gay marriage. Again, the move was wildly popular with supporters of gay couples.

The irony, of course, is that the owners of the pizza place and the hair stylist were both asserting their rights to do business with the people they choose — for reasons of their own. They’re claiming the right to be free and to choose their own voluntary associations.

They’re absolutely right that they’re asserting this freedom. It’s odd that they’re asserting it in an apparent effort to demand that other people not have the same freedom to make their own choices of association.

Free people don’t always make choices that I consider wise or moral. But as long as they don’t use force to impose their choices on others, they have the moral right to make choices that I disagree with.

In other words, people have the moral right to be bigots — and those of us who disagree with them have the right not to associate with them.