There’s no question that Jan Brewer did the right thing yesterday. No moral question. And no legal question either. Well, let me slightly amend that: With this Supreme Court, you never know about the future. But we know about the past, and decades of civil-rights case law are squarely on Brewer’s side, and supporters of SB 1062 just have to see this clearly and squarely and accept it.
It’s not like we’ve never fought over these questions. We have, of course, and a result, there’s a history here. And that history, that body of court decisions, says clearly, like it or not, that generally speaking, citizens cannot opt out of civil rights laws.
As Harvard law professor Noah Feldman pointed out yesterday in a Bloomberg view column, segregationist business owners in the South argued after the civil rights act of 1964 that their “constitutional right to associate” as they chose should permit them not to serve black customers. (The religious-liberty right, Feldman notes, has the same “constitutional status” as the right to associate.) But courts never said that this was permissible.
We may laugh today at the idea that the racist owner of a hardware store in Natchez in 1965 could have refused to sell a black carpenter a bag of masonry nails. But it was no laughing matter then. This was real. Congress, and then the courts, put a stop to it. As Feldman told me yesterday in a follow-up exchange: “Freedom to associate and exercise religion are basic rights. Excluding customers isn't.”
The freedom to associate that Feldman mentions is one carve-out that courts have recognized. But that’s a narrow exemption, intended in real life mostly for private or fraternal organizations that are built around some idea of ethnic cohesion—New York’s Ancient Order of Hibernians, for example, which quite famously has been allowed for years to ban gay people and groups from marching in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
By the way, doesn’t it seem weirdly anachronistic and reactionary that the Hibernians still enforce this ban? The gay-rights position was controversial back in the early ’90s, when I was covering these things. Now, the Hibernians’ position seems like something better suited to Alabama than New York City. In any case, after Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg marched in the discriminatory parade every years, new Mayor Bill De Blasio announced that he’s boycotting it.
But, the Hibernians are allowed to do this under their right to associate. There also exists a so-called “Mrs. Murphy” exemption to the Fair Housing Act for owner-occupied rental housing of four or fewer units—that is, if little old Mrs. Murphy subdivided her big house and wants to keep out certain people, she’s probably allowed to do that. And finally, in certain narrow cases, religious institutions that serve mostly religious purposes are allowed to hire only their coreligionists.
But a business vending to the general public? No way. If these “Christians” in Arizona are permitted to deny their services to same-sex couples, then atheist small-businesses owners in Berkeley are perfectly within their rights to hang a sign: “No Christian evangelicals served.” It would be crazy for courts to open that door.
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