Sunday, April 19, 2015

Does Grand Rapids have its own business mining gay rights outrage for profit?

Local business owner Brian Klawiter posted a rant on his Facebook page last Tuesday, April 14, stating that his company, Dieseltec in Grandville, would refuse to serve a list of people he considered guilty of committing immoral acts, including the dishonest, thieves, and “openly gay person or persons.” As might be expected, Klawiter’s statement provoked a large backlash from the gay community and other people angry at Klawiter’s discriminatory service policy. In a follow up post on Facebook on April 16, Klawiter stated that he and his family had received death threats as well as threats to burn down both Dieseltec and his home. There have also been calls to boycott Dieseltec, and angry activists have gone online to denounce Klawiter and affect Dieseltec’s online profile, including writing negative reviews of Dieseltec on Yelp.

Saturday, April 18, protestors demonstrated peacefully in front of Dieseltec, while supporters of Klawiter and his position held a barbeque on the property. A GoFundMe campaign was started to show financial support for Klawiter, but the site took it down after it received complaints.

Many lawsuits have been launched in other states against business owners who have declined to offer services to gay people, particularly with regards to wedding related goods and services. Gay marriage has been legalized in many states over the past several years, but it is still a polarizing issue among people. This issue is often framed as civil rights versus religious freedoms by those for or against gay marriage, respectively.

From a civil rights standpoint in Michigan, however, what Brian Klawiter is doing is not illegal. Neither the State of Michigan nor the City of Grandville includes protections for gay people in its legal codes, although there has been some discussion of adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state’s civil rights act as recently as last fall. Also, it's unclear what Klawiter means by "openly gay." Is this something that can be judged by outward appearance? By anyone? Physical appearance can be deceiving and, for that matter, be altered by dress, grooming, or plastic surgery.

As a religious freedom issue, there’s considerable support among certain denominations to support Klawiter’s position as the morally right one. Religious groups are feeling pressure to conform to emerging social norms that are in direct conflict with their stated beliefs. This has created a situation in which a minor rant from a small business owner on social media can escalate quickly to another skirmish in our cultural war.

Lately, though, profit appears to be another motivating factor in some of these cases. Add the ability to easily raise funds to support cultural warriors through sites like GoFundMe to a desire among many to make a stand for what’s right, and it doesn’t seem like jumping to conclusions to wonder if there will be cases like this in which the real motivating factor isn’t a concern for civil rights, free speech, or religious freedom, but a desire to hoover up money from passionate people who are easily manipulated for gain.

So the question here is, does Grand Rapids now have its own charlatan, or is Klawiter sincere and this just one more skirmish in America's never ending culture wars?