In 1985, the Minnesota Supreme Court took on an unusual case. The state had sued three owners of a gym chain called Sports & Health Club, Inc. for discrimination. It alleged they had fired, not hired, or otherwise mistreated employees who, according to the owners, lived in ways that were “antagonistic to the Bible.” Per court documents, this included “individuals living with but not married to a person of the opposite sex; a young, single woman working without her father's consent or a married woman working without her husband's consent; a person whose commitment to a non-Christian religion is strong; and … fornicators and homosexuals.”
The owners of Sports & Health lost. Damages were awarded. The clubs were shut down. Justice, ostensibly, was served, and the case resolved.
Surprisingly enough, McClure vs. Sports & Health Club is the only example of a major U.S. court case in which for-profit business owners claimed that employing a gay person violated their religious beliefs, according to the University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock. Last year’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage has raised the prospect that many more such cases lie ahead.
This obscure, 31-year-old court case is now one of the only available guides for understanding the long-term consequences of a conflict that is becoming more and more common in American life: the clash between gay rights and religious beliefs. To defenders of religious liberty, McClure could serve as a warning of the dangers of an oppressive state. To advocates of gay rights, it stands as a useful precedent for the defense of individual freedom. But for those who were involved in the case, it is also something else: a reminder that by the time such fights go to court, no one involved is likely to win.