Ray, 7-2-2014

My Word: My freedom ends where your rights begin

robert ray

(Orlando Sentinel, July 2, 2014)

By Robert J. Ray

The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act today and the 238th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on Friday have inspired me to reflect on rights and freedoms.

I love freedom. Maybe not as much as our Founding Father Patrick Henry did — I mean, I don’t go around saying, “Give me liberty or give me death.” But I’m definitely a fan of freedom.

However, freedom is more complicated than many realize — in part, because we as a nation revere a high-grade form of freedom called rights.

Freedom is a bit like Newton’s third law of motion: For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Similarly, your rights curtail my freedoms, and my rights curtail your freedoms.

That’s what makes it so tricky. And that’s why we need to recognize that every individual’s inalienable rights must take precedence over our own lower-grade freedoms.

In much the same way that two solid objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time, your rights and my freedoms can’t co-exist when they’re mutually exclusive. For instance, to the degree that the civil rights that were promised in 1964 have become reality, our freedom to discriminate has been taken away. As it should be.

The Civil Rights Act made it clear to restaurateurs, hoteliers, retailers, academic institutions, government agencies, clubs, employers and a long list of other entities that certain inalienable rights trump personal and corporate freedom to decide who is and isn’t worthy of the service offered by service providers.

The major social changes brought about over the past half-century by legislators and the courts have greatly benefited blacks, ethnic groups, women, those who are disabled, homosexuals, minority religions, atheists and a long list of others who’ve faced discrimination.

So today, let’s unreservedly rejoice that, because of the Civil Rights Act, liberty and justice have become a deeper and more widespread reality. Let’s not lament the fact that honoring the inalienable rights of others has limited the freedom to disenfranchise, which once reigned supreme.

Robert J. Ray, a risk-management consultant, is a member of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.