Tom Eblen: In T-shirt discrimination controversy, Hands on Originals could draw lessons from history

discrimination comes with a price

Herald-Leader columnistApril 1, 2012 

Discrimination has a price, and Hands On Originals, the Lexington T-shirt printer, could pay dearly for it.

The Gay and Lesbian Services Organization of Lexington filed a complaint against the company last week with the city's Human Rights Commission. It alleges that Hands on Originals bid to print shirts for the 5th annual Lexington Pride Festival in June, then refused the job because it is "a Christian organization."

The T-shirt design shows a stylized number 5 and the words "Lexington Pride Festival" on the front and the event's sponsors on the back.

"Hands On Originals both employs and conducts business with people of all genders, races, religions, sexual preferences, and national origins," owner Blaine Adamson wrote in a statement. "However, due to the promotional nature of our products, it is the prerogative of the company to refuse any order that would endorse positions that conflict with the convictions of the ownership."

Since 1999, city law has forbidden discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation — including the sale of goods — on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, old age, sexual orientation or gender identity.

This complaint is unusual, both because it involves sexual orientation and because it was made by a group, said Sandra Canon, who chairs the commission. Most complaints come from individuals and involve gender or race discrimination in employment or housing.

The Human Rights Commission will thoroughly investigate the complaint and, if it is substantiated, offer to mediate a resolution, Canon said. If mediation fails, the commission could take the company to court for violating city law.

"I'm against discrimination. Period," Mayor Jim Gray said in a statement after the complaint was filed. "It's bad for business and bad for the city. I support the Human Rights Commission in a full and thorough investigation."

City government has done more than $53,000 in business with Hands on Originals since June 2010, most of it related to downtown festivities during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. The law prohibits the city from doing business with companies that discriminate.

Another big customer also has expressed concern about the complaint. A University of Kentucky spokesman said the school was reviewing the matter before deciding whether to renew a contract with Hands on Originals that recently expired.

I am sure Hands on Originals will have plenty of support from Kentuckians who either don't like gay people or believe that homosexuality is a sin. Others will argue that a private business should be able to choose or refuse customers at will, regardless of what civil rights laws say.

Christianity's view of homosexuality is open to broad interpretation. The way I read the Gospels, Jesus Christ never specifically addressed homosexuality, although he had a lot to say about self-righteous people who are eager to condemn others.

People have always tried to use religion to validate their beliefs, desires, prejudices and economic interests. With enough twisting, you can justify almost anything with scripture. Before the Civil War, many Southern ministers used the Bible to justify slavery.

Despite what many politicians say in campaign speeches, this is not a Christian nation. It is a nation where people have freedom of religion and freedom from religion. In recent decades, this nation has developed a strong tradition of protecting the rights of minorities.

Lexington, Louisville and Covington are the only places in Kentucky where anti-discrimination laws specifically protect gay people. Attempts by other cities to pass similar laws have been blocked, often by church folks.

Opposition to equal rights for gay people was at the heart of legislators' shameful refusal last month to pass a law that would strengthen protections for children who are bullied at school.

Equal rights for black people was controversial in the 1950s and 1960s. Equal rights for women was controversial in the 1970s. Equal rights for gays and lesbians is controversial today, although legal support for anti-gay prejudice is rapidly disappearing.

When you look at this 235-year-old experiment in democracy that we call the United States of America, a couple of things are apparent. One is that discrimination of all kinds has become less acceptable with each passing year. Another is that history has not looked kindly upon those who discriminate, no matter how they justify it.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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