As Americans, we tend to believe we have the right to do whatever we want, so long as it doesn't interfere with the rights of others. But sometimes the lines get a little blurry.
For example, what happens if the owner of a bar in a college town wants to avoid some of the problems that come with college drinking? Should the bar owner be allowed to set a rule so that only those 25 and older are allowed in his bar? Or since 21-year-olds can legally drink, should the bar owner be forced to admit anyone who is 21 and older?
Just over half (53 percent) of all Americans say the bar owner should be allowed to set a 25-year-old age limit. About one out of three disagree.
This is consistent with a longstanding tradition in America that the owner of a house gets to write the house rules. It builds upon an old English attitude embraced in common law that a man's home is his castle.
The same public attitudes prevail in a situation where the owner of a Brooklyn deli requires that its patrons dress modestly. Sixty-eight percent believe the owner has the right to impose such a rule, but New York City officials disagree. The owners are Orthodox Jews, and the city views their action as religious discrimination.
Most Americans also think it's OK for real estate developers to restrict some properties to people 55 and above or to let bars offer half-price drinks to women during happy hour.
Shifting gears, some colleges have rules requiring that leadership in campus organizations be open to anyone. But by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans disagree. A solid majority believes Christian campus organizations should be allowed to select only Christian leaders. A similar number believe that gay and lesbian groups should be allowed to select only leaders who support equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans.
That sounds like common sense, but it's been the source of legal action in recent years.
That's because in the cases mentioned, somebody's rights are technically being violated by the decisions of someone else. A 54-year-old who wants to buy a home in a restricted development is denied the opportunity. Those who don't want to dress modestly are denied the chance to patronize a deli. An atheist who wants to lead a Christian organization is banned from doing so.
There are some who believe that the rights of the consumer must triumph absolutely over the rights of the business owner. The American Civil Liberties Union holds this view. It believes that if you open your doors to serve the public in any way, you forfeit all right to set terms and conditions on whom you will serve.
There are others who hold that if someone owns a business, they can do whatever they want. While this sounds right to most Americans, it can lead to problems if carried to an extreme. Hardly anybody, for example, believes that a restaurant should be allowed to deny service to someone simply because they are black.
At the end of the day, most Americans don't believe that either consumers or business owners have absolute rights. They believe business owners can establish reasonable restrictions on whom they will serve, and consumers always have the right to take their business elsewhere.
Scott Rasmussen is founder and president of Rasmussen Reports. He is the author of “Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System,” “In Search of Self-Governance,” and “The People’s Money: How Voters Will Balance the Budget and Eliminate the Federal Debt.” Read more reports from Scott Rasmussen — Click Here Now.