Gessler’s Hat

In the foundation-legend of the Swiss confederacy, Alberect Gessler was a cruel and tyrannical overlord installed by the Austrians, who installed his hat atop a pole in the public marketplace and decreed that all should bow to it … to his hat, not merely his person. Such a declaration was, I think, a way of rubbing in his authority over the common citizens – indeed, rubbing their noses in the fact that he could make them do so, and do so in front of everyone else.

Having read now and again of small businesses run by devout Christians, such event venues, a bakery doing wedding cakes, or a wedding photographer, even a bed and breakfast refusing to provide a good or a service to a gay couple, I am lead to wonder if this isn’t a kind of Gessler’s hat, metamorphosed to the 21st century. Of course, in this best of all possible worlds, anyone’s money ought to be as good as anyone elses’. And in the case of some of the complainants, loud comparisons are made, comparing the way in which small businesses dealt – or didn’t deal at all – with customers of the African-American variety, fifty years and more ago. Left unsaid, but still implied is a kind of smug satisfaction that devout Christians will be called to heel just as unrepentant racists were.

Somehow, I can’t be so certain of that outcome. Browbeating and bringing suit against the religiously observant into compliance with society’s dictates most usually has the opposite of effect intended, even if superficial compliance is eventually gained. Devout and observant Christians do make up a larger portion of the population than gays – who for all their prominence in media and entertainment, still only comprise less than 3% of the population overall – if that. African-Americans, give or take a couple of percentage points either way are at about %12, which is probably not a market segment which can be ignored by someone selling services or a product.

So, can you refuse service to a member of the public, and for what reason? Do you need a reason? Or will just a polite demurral do, such as “I am so sorry, we can’t fit that into our schedule” ? Making the question a little more complicated – will any religion do? Suppose a Jewish photographer didn’t want to photograph a Catholic quinceanera celebration, or a Muslim-owned halal caterer refused to provide food for a specifically Jewish or Christian event? Seriously, even if such a thing happened in the real world, I can’t imagine the customer getting too bent out of shape by the refusal – unless the refusal was couched in less than tactful language.

So what are we to make of stories such as those that I linked, and others of the same sort? I am pretty sure that it’s not so much a question of civil rights for a very small, but socially influential minority at issue here. Rather, it’s a metaphorical Gesseler’s Hat, for which is not sufficient to merely tolerate – all must be seen to approve, and in loud voices in the public square. Discuss.

4 thoughts on “Gessler’s Hat

  1. I prefer the more extreme examples.

    What if a Jewish printing company doesn’t want to print for the American Nazi Party? (Though that’s not likely to come up, because Nazis would deliberately avoid Jews…)

    Or an atheist-owned one doesn’t want to print creationist tracts?

    I suspect, sadly, that the capital-A Atheists I know on the Book of Face would have a sudden “but that’s different” moment, though I’d like to hope otherwise.

  2. Come the morning when the hat is gone. It’s tacked to the bar door with a bunch of arrows and a pithy note about the next one getting the same treatment–but with the owners head still within.

    People eventually get truculent. Such violence does terrible things to a society. Best head it off by stealing the hat sooner (and the jury letting off the Christians!)

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