Politics

02.27.14

Morally and Legally, the Right Call in Arizona

The history of civil-rights law is clearly on Jan Brewer's side with her veto of discriminatory SB 1062.

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.

Brewer seemed to understand all this properly with the money passage of her statement yesterday: “Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona. I have not heard one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberty has been violated.” She deserves credit for saying this, dismissing this specious religious liberty talk.

The legal history is clear. The legal future, though, is still a bit up in the air. Feldman acknowledges that SB 1062 “may well be constitutional” because the law’s supporters might be able to argue successfully that their tradition of religious liberty is “in jeopardy.” Samuel Bagenstos, a former assistant attorney general for civil rights under Barack Obama who now teaches law at the University of Michigan, explains that the Arizona law and others like it around the country constitute a new and not-yet-settled legal battle front. “These laws, by singling out gays and lesbians for less protection of antidiscrimination laws, are vulnerable to a challenge under the Equal Protection Clause,” Bagenstos says. “But the law's very much developing in this area, so we really can't say anything with confidence.”

It’s developing, but it’s mostly developing on the side of shutting down legal discrimination. Ask the Texas judge who yesterday struck down that state’s same-sex marriage ban, writing “that state-imposed inequality can find no refuge in our United States Constitution.” Increasingly, the law is coming to understand what more and more Americans understand. Gay people are equal. Period. There is no real religious basis for thinking otherwise. Ian Millhiser of Think Progress reminded us yesterday of people who used to think the same way:

In 1901, Georgia Gov. Allen Candler defended unequal public schooling for African Americans on the grounds that “God made them negroes and we cannot by education make them white folks.” After the Supreme Court ordered public schools integrated in Brown v. Board of Education, many segregationists cited their own faith as justification for official racism. Ross Barnett won Mississippi’s governorship in a landslide in 1960 after claiming that “the good Lord was the original segregationist.” Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia relied on passages from Genesis, Leviticus and Matthew when he spoke out against the civil rights law banning employment discrimination and whites-only lunch counters on the Senate floor.

It’s painfully obvious that in a mere 10 or 15 years, that’s how these Arizona Christians will be widely seen. They really ought to ask themselves if that’s the historic company they want to keep.