The Metro section of Monday's Washington Post offers an illustration of how zoning laws and other business regulations can be used by government to disfavor certain individuals and groups because of characteristics unrelated to merit. In this case, the disfavored individual is gay and black, but he could just as easily be a Republican in a heavily Democratic community (or vice versa) or a Catholic living among Rome-as-Whore-of-Babylon Bible thumpers, or a Jew almost anywhere.
The article, by reporter Nick Miroff, begins:
In the past three years, the Manassas City Council has received two applications for home-based massage therapy businesses, and members have approved both. Then Howard Daniel, who is gay, applied.The council's decisions to approve two applications and deny one cannot all be based on merit. After all, as WRC-TV reports,
The backlash against Daniel's request began last month when nearly two dozen people, many of them members of a local church, spoke in opposition to it at a public hearing. When it came time for the city to decide on Daniel's application the next week, council members balked and voted instead to consider changing the city's zoning laws.
Howard Daniel is a former Marine Corps reservist who is also a certified massage therapist. He wants to open the business in his home, but almost two-dozen Manassas residents have spoken out against his application.Neither can the denial stem from opposition of Daniel's neighbors, which would be a legitimate reason to deny an application for any home-based business, even an accountant or a dog groomer. A WRC reporter interviewed some of the neighbors:
Daniel already offers his massage therapy services at the local hospital and in the homes of clients.
Most of Daniel's neighbors seem supportive of his business plan, News4's I.J. Hudson reported.It's not difficult to understand that opposition to Daniel's business application is based on raw bigotry. One of his supportive neighbors, according to the Post, found an anti-gay slogan written on his car. It is particularly suspicious that Daniel's supporters come from his own street, while opponents come from other parts of the city and are, in fact, strangers to Daniel and his nearest neighbors.
"If anybody was going to have a service like that here, I think he'd be one of the people who would uphold the integrity of the neighborhood very well," Paul Thomas said.
Daniel's neighbor, Don Quick, said people in the neighborhood are fine with the home practice and that the complaints are coming from people from other parts of town.
Council member Jackson Miller, who is running for a vacant seat in the House of Delegates in a special election on November 7, finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Miller, a Republican, had voted to approve the applications of the two other home-based massage therapists, which any pro-free enterprise legislator would be expected to do. But to approve Daniel's application risks offending the anti-gay voters who will make up a significant fraction of his base of supporters. He doesn't want to drive away voters by appearing "soft" on homosexuality, no matter what level of personal tolerance and integrity he possesses.
The fact that the Manassas city council is considering a change to its zoning laws rather than permit a gay man to operate a home-based business reminds me of what happened a few years ago, when the federal Equal Access Act, which was written to assure that religious clubs were treated equally by government school officials and allowed to hold meetings on campus and recruit members, was invoked to permit gay-straight alliances (GSAs) the same access.
In response, a number of school districts around the country simply eliminated all extra-curricular activities (except sports, of course) rather than give gay students a chance to assemble and speak at school.
I don't want to lose sight of my larger point, however.
That is, we should be alert to the fact that zoning ordinances, eminent domain powers, business licensing, and other local regulatory authorities can be used to persecute and punish individuals based on their political beliefs and activities, their religion and sexual orientation, or merely because they are disliked personally by certain public officials.
These powers should be circumscribed as much as possible to prevent their misuse and abuse, and citizens should be watchdogs against cases like Howard Daniel's in Manassas.