America is coming to loggerheads over the religious "rights" of corporations and their employees, and in a bank in Cranford, New Jersey, things just got real really fast. Amanda Knief is the managing director of American Atheists. She reportedly was refused notary service by a TD Bank employee, who cited "personal reasons." According to Amanda:
A notary at a local bank, where I have gone more than a dozen times to have work documents signed, asked me to explain what we were having notarized. The documents were charitable organizations registrations for American Atheists in several states. So I told her what AA is about. She looked down, then looked at me and [American Atheists President] Dave Silverman and said she couldn't sign the documents because of "personal reasons" and went to find another notary who was eating his lunch to come do the authentications.
As you can probably guess, this is causing a bit of controversy, but American Atheists is no stranger to controversy. In fact, they openly court it, with cases like the World Trade Center Memorial lawsuit. Some are already arguing that this is much ado over nothing, since the documents got notarized, and nobody was the worse for wear. I would like to argue that in fact, this is much needed ado over something positively sinister.
Let's imagine that this was a small bank, not in Cranford, but in Loving County, Texas, with it's population of 82 scattered over 677 square miles. Loving County caught the New York Times' attention back in 2006 when it was the target of -- get this, a Libertarian coup. No kidding. Anyway, it's one of those places where everybody knows everybody, and you have to drive a hundred miles from the middle of nowhere just to get to the middle of nowhere else. So, let's ask the question: What if there was only one notary, and she didn't want to sign a paper because of personal objections? What if the papers had to be notarized that day? Now is it a trivial matter?
Maybe that example is too off the beaten path to be useful, though. Let's go back to Cranford, and ask the next logical question. What if the notary who was at lunch didn't want to do it, either? And what if the bank next door didn't have any willing notaries? Or the one next door to that? At what point does it become a violation of civil rights for Ms. Knief?
This is really the same issue which the Supreme Court is deciding in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. At stake is quite literally the ability of corporations or the individuals that work for them to legally discriminate for "personal" reasons. (We can call them religious reasons, but why bother? One need only cite a religion -- any old religion -- to qualify.) We are talking about 70 years of civil rights law being swept away in one fell swoop. If one bank employee can refuse to provide service for an atheist, why shouldn't a pharmacist be able to refuse to sell heart medicine to a Muslim?
That last question is hyperbolic, right? It's over the top. Surely, we're not talking about something so radical, after such an innocuous thing as an employee getting another employee to sign a piece of paper? Actually, I think it's not radical. The history of institutional discrimination is strewn with examples of oppressors asking the same kinds of questions. Is being shuffled off to another teller at a bank the same as having separate water fountains, or seating at the back of the bus? Absolutely not... in effect. Amanda got exactly the same legal notarization from the second employee as she would have gotten from the first. But in principle, allowing this kind of discrimination to occur opens the floodgates for the same kinds of egregious violations of civil rights. It's really not that hard to imagine a small Christian town where "personal objections" could turn into stone walls for services, and not just by banks.
This debate has gone on long enough. Freedom of religion is not, and should not be a license for businesses to discriminate. Corporate entities are not persons, and they do not deserve the liberties of persons. In fact, to preserve the liberties of persons, we must insist that corporate entities treat everyone the same, regardless of the personal preferences of the employees. Let's be really clear on this. If Sally McNotary has a sign on her lawn advertising her status, and someone knocks on her door and asks if she'll perform notary service, she has (and ought to have) every right to say no. She is an individual. TD Bank, on the other hand, is a corporation which must abide by non-discrimination law. If someone works for them, they are signing on to perform as an agent of the bank, not a private citizen. The bank may not discriminate, and thus, the employees may not discriminate.
And here's the bottom line: Passing off an atheist to another notary may not be egregious discrimination, but it is discrimination, nonetheless. We cannot let it stand.
UPDATE: March 27. After this article was published, I received a response from a representative of TD Bank. With permission, I am publishing it here. I would also like to extend my thanks to TD Bank for reaching out so quickly on this important issue.
Valuing diversity and building an inclusive environment is a fundamental part of TD’s culture. We treat all consumers fairly and with respect, and this instance was no different. Our employee needed help with the document and this led to the miscommunication. -- Rebecca Acevedo, TD Bank
UPDATE: March 27. I spoke with Amanda Knief, who reiterated that the bank's explanation is not what happened. Earlier this afternoon, Ms. Knief released a draft of legislation she intends to present to legislator(s) in the New Jersey Assembly, which would prohibit notaries from refusing service based on "the signer’s race, nationality, ethnicity, citizenship, religion, politics, lifestyle, age, disability, gender or sexual orientation, or because of disagreement with the statements or purpose of a lawful document."