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Freedom to Discriminate? Michigan Business Under Fire for Anti-Gay Ad

05/08/2015 05:05 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

Most people believe in freedom of speech. Most people also believe that a business shouldn't have the right to discriminate against customers for their religious and political beliefs. But what if you were faced with a situation where you had to choose?

Right now in Dearborn, Mich. a local business owner is facing this very question. A group called "Restrain The Judges" placed a number of advertisements claiming "Homosexuality is a behavior, not a civil right."

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This ad just so happens to be a mile north of my home on a busy street. I'm not particularly happy about it. In the meantime, tens of thousands of people and their children are being forced to view it every day.

However, when some local advocates got mad, rather than directing their ire at the group which placed the ad, many are directing their anger towards the owner of the ad space and, strangely, at the local chamber of commerce. So it's worth asking the question: does a business owner have the right to discriminate in regard to what ads they place?

I talked to Tom Giesken, the owner of the Giesken Outdoor Advertising, the company who signed the advertising contract with Restrain The Judges. I was lucky to get a hold of him because he had to disconnect his land-line after getting so many angry phone calls. He was very forthright about his beliefs.

"As a business person, I don't have the luxury of taking a political position. This is not that forum for me," said Giesken, regarding his own advertising space. "This forum is about the first amendment and for everybody to have free speech... I believe that is what our founding fathers set up, so that we could work out our differences."

Unfortunately, the issue at question doesn't have a lot of middle ground. Not to mention, the advertisement goes against the overwhelming body of scientific research and evidence. Still, Giesken doesn't feel like he has the right to pick and choose.

"I have a deep care for every single human being, that's at the core of who I am. If somebody put up something that was very hateful and directly attacking people, I wouldn't put it up," Giesken said. "But if it's coming from a religious standpoint, where it's just their opinion, I feel like I don't have the right to say no to that."

A lot of advertisers are going to have to tackle these questions, now and into the future. Even though science has reached a consensus on matters of whether or not being a gay is a choice, the fact is that in many communities the public hasn't.

That's why, in response to the controversy, the Dearborn Area Chamber of Commerce president Jackie Lovejoy said she's setting up a panel discussion with professors and advertising experts to explore the ethical issues at hand.

"Our job at the Dearborn Chamber of Commerce is to educate and inform," said Lovejoy. "I have a lot of gay friends and this really breaks my heart that people see us as a part of this. I'm not the person with all the answers. However, I think the best thing we can do in the chamber is to foster discussion on the issue as to what is legal and ethical for advertising companies to do."

In the meantime, a local man named Ferman Smith has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for an ad that counters the messages sent out by this group.

The silver lining in all of this?
Giesken happily offered to host that ad, too.

"I'm happy to foster debate on both sides of the issue," he said. "That's what freedom of speech is for."