Sound the Alarm
When Maria Goldstein ordered 500 copies of a flyer at Office Depot online on August 20, 2015, she was in for a big surprise. The flyer was meant to be handed out in conjunction with a weeklong prayer and fasting campaign at her church aimed at educating people and changing opinions about abortion. It contained statistics about abortion in the U.S. in general and the nonprofit organization Planned Parenthood in particular, as well as “A Prayer for the Conversion of Planned Parenthood,” written by Fr. Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life and a prominent pro-life leader. She intended to pick her order up at the Schaumburg, Illinois, Office Depot, which was close to her home, but she received a phone message from a store employee saying that he needed to discuss the order with her.
Upon calling the store, she was informed that her flyer couldn’t be printed, because it violated corporate policy, though no one could tell her precisely what that policy was or how her flyer violated it. She was invited to use the self-serve copiers to print the flyer herself. This solution wasn’t convenient, and although she was able to have her flyer printed through a different venue, Goldstein felt discriminated against.
“In the beginning stages,” says Goldstein, “I was really confused. I couldn’t believe that they’d be discriminating against me based on my religion. I just couldn’t believe it. And I certainly believed that when I contacted someone at Office Depot, they were going to make it right. I thought they’d see there was nothing wrong with the flyer, and they’d offer to print it.”
Repeated attempts to reach officials at the store, however, were unsuccessful until she contacted the Thomas More Society, a national public interest law firm that provides pro bono legal services in cases that support life, family, and religious liberty. They advised her to make one more attempt, notifying Office Depot that she had retained legal counsel. Not surprisingly, she received a return call the next morning and was told that if material made an employee feel uncomfortable, they didn’t have to print it. She was also informed that the store was working on a policy to address similar situations.
“That’s what I was told,” says Goldstein, “but in the media, Office Depot said the flyer constituted hate speech and implied persecution against employees of Planned Parenthood, which was not at all what they told me.
“I was very upset when they came out with the terms ‘hate speech’ and ‘persecution’ because it’s so much against what I do. I’m a sidewalk counselor at an abortion clinic. Every week I go out there, and I counsel women. I offer them help. I have cried with women. I’ve given out information; I’ve given out my phone number so they can contact me, and they have.
“I’m not against them. I’m not against anybody who’s involved in the abortion business. What I seek and what the prayer [on the flyer] was seeking was enlightenment, and to call it hate speech and persecution was so off base it was really insulting.”
Without assistance from the Thomas More Society, that’s likely how Goldstein’s situation would have ended. Instead, her lawyer, Thomas Olp, wrote to Office Depot president Roland Smith, stating that refusal to print Goldstein’s flyer violated public accommodation laws as detailed in the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance and the Illinois Human Rights Act, which exist to prevent precisely this type of religious discrimination. In fact, all states have versions of public accommodation laws, though they do not all protect the same rights. (For a full list by state, see sidebar.)
In Cook County, where the Office Depot that Goldstein attempted to use is located, the Cook County board of commissioners enacted the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance to prevent “prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, and discrimination occasioned thereby [which] threaten the rights and proper privileges of the county’s inhabitants and menace the institutions and foundation of a free and democratic society.” 1 Their ordinance protects the rights of people such as Maria Goldstein who request services from businesses in the county through public accommodation protections. “Public accommodation” is defined by the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance as a “person, place, business establishment, or agency that sells, leases, provides, or offers any product, facility, or service to the general public in Cook County, regardless of ownership or operation (1) by a public body or agency; (2) for or without regard to profit; or (3) for a fee or not for a fee.”2
“The public accommodation law requires that you give full service,” says Olp, ‘full’ meaning that the same service you would give to anybody else, you’ve got to give to this person, too. You’re offering full service to the public; you’ve got to give it to everybody without unlawful discrimination, which is defined to mean discrimination because of race, religion, etc.”
Office Depot’s response to Olp’s letter came via their assistant general counsel, Robert Amicone, who defended Office Depot’s right to refuse service based on the fact that Fr. Pavone’s prayer could have been a potential copyright violation (grounds for refusal of service because of copyright infringement laws) and that the flyer contained graphic language calling abortion clinics “death camps in our midst” and referring to the “killing of children in the womb” and “the grisly trade in baby body parts.” He characterized the reference to the “evil” of the abortion industry as hate speech and wrote that because of its graphic content and hate language, the flyer would have violated Office Depot’s policy regardless of its religious expression.
However, Olp said Office Depot backtracked from their initial response very quickly. It’s possible that had something to do with the story going viral in the media. Amicone’s letter arrived on September 11, 2015, a Friday morning, and by early afternoon they had reversed their position. In a letter of the same date, Elisa Garcia, executive vice president and chief legal officer, wrote, “Upon reflection, we believe that reasonable minds may differ on whether the flyer is a violation of the policy, and in that case, we should have found a way to fulfill Ms. Goldstein’s order.”3 The letter concluded with an apology to Goldstein and an invitation to allow them to fulfill her order, which she did.
“We’re very happy that Office Depot changed its mind,” says Olp, “and did it so quickly.”
You could call it a simple misunderstanding; that’s clearly how Office Depot chose to see it, in the end—officially, at least. You could call it religious discrimination; that’s how it felt to Maria Goldstein. But whatever you choose to call it, however you choose to view it, you should consider it an early warning sign of an infringement of religious liberty and sound the alarm. James Madison, in his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” wrote that it is “proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it.”4 In a country in which it is becoming increasingly harder to speak what you believe without offending someone or being accused of “hate speech,” in which politically correct phrases are de rigueur, in which standing up for what you believe in is becoming trickier and trickier, it becomes increasingly necessary to take preventative action, as Maria Goldstein did, before precedents are set. You cannot hold the line if you do not first take a stand.
“It’s the height of political correctness,” says Olp, “to say, ‘If you don’t tolerate anything that’s legal out there, you’re involved in hate speech; you’re doing something wrong. And if it’s religiously motivated we don’t care. We just think it’s wrong. We’re going to ignore any religious aspect of what you’re doing. Because, after all, religion should be kept in your church. Go into your church and worship, but when you come out into the public square, no religion, please.’ That seems to be the secular mentality. And more and more it’s being pushed into the laws.”
You would think that America, being a country comprised primarily of immigrants, a great many of which were fleeing religious oppression, would itself be more passionate about religious freedom and less judgmental. Yet this has never been so. There has been discrimination based on religion since its birth. “In newly independent America, there was a crazy quilt of state laws regarding religion. In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office (and would do so until 1806). In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches.”5 There has, of course, been discrimination based on race, which prompted an entire civil war, and discrimination based on country of origin: Germany and Japan during World War II, and more recently, anyone whose ethnicity originates in Muslim-majority countries. While anti-Semitism appears to be waning in America, it continues to be a persistent problem.
Discrimination has always had a grip on America, and not all types of discrimination are unlawful. But in the area of public accommodation, according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most comprehensive civil rights legislation in the history of the United States, it is unlawful to discriminate against someone based on race, color, religion, or national origin in any place of public accommodation. If we do not make a stand for religious freedom in the public square, no one will make it for us.
“Let’s red-circle an area for religious expression, religious liberty,” says Olp, “and not allow it to be closed down further and further by secular believers forcing people to essentially keep their mouths shut and not do what Christians need to do, which is to evangelize. Every time you stand up for religious liberty, it’s a good thing. It helps people appreciate first, that there is religious liberty, and second, that it needs to be protected by people who have backbone and are willing to stand up for it.”
While Goldstein is worried that the wording of the apology from Office Depot seems to leave the door open for future problems, she feels blessed that God was able to use the situation. “I set out to pass out 500 flyers to my fellow parishioners, and through this situation, God has allowed me to reach thousands of people with the message of truth that the pro-life movement is one of love and peace and hope. That’s what we’re about, and it’s not hate, and it’s not persecutory.”
Goldstein says she’s learned to trust in what God wants to do, and not back down. “When we’re being discriminated against, which seems like it’s happening more and more, we can’t back down. We’ve got to stand up for our religious liberty and for our God, quite honestly.”
3 Elisa D. Garcia to Office Depot, Sept. 11, 2015.