This incident is relevant to the Supreme Court’s recent hearings about whether a Colorado web designer could refuse service by refusing to create a wedding website for a gay couple. That was a First Amendment case, but this refusal to service, in Virginia, may constitute a civil rights case. You decide:
Reader Williams Garcia sent me a link to an article from ABC 8 News serving the Richmond, Virginia area.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited, among other things, discrimination in public places against certain “protected classes”: to wit:
Note that it says nothing about “politics”, so I suppose a restaurant could deny service to a group or person on political grounds, though I’m not 100% sure. Could a restaurant refuse to serve Mitch McConnell because he’s a Republican servant of Beelzebub?
This is important because a “conservative advocacy group” mentioned in the article (click on screenshot) was refused service on grounds that seem to involve both the group’s politics and their religious foundation:
Here’s the skinny (my bolding):
A Virginia-based conservative Christian advocacy group was turned away from a local restaurant just an hour before their reservation last week.
A representative of the Family Foundation said he was frustrated after the group was turned away from Metzger Bar and Butchery last Wednesday. The group claims the refusal had to do with their religious beliefs.
According to Todd Gathje, Director of Government Relations for the Family Foundation, one of the owners of Metzger called a representative of the Family Foundation about an hour before the reservation time, saying that the group would not be dining in the restaurant.
“We’ve had events at restaurants all over the city and never encountered a situation like this,” Gathje said. “It’s no secret that we are very much engaged in the public policy debate on a number of controversial issues. But we never expected that we would be denied service at a restaurant based on our religious values or political beliefs.”
For businesses like restaurants, federal and state laws do not allow discrimination based on protected classes such as race, religion, sex and more, as defined by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It’s not yet clear if this incident falls under one of those protected classes.
The question, then, is whether the Family Foundation of Virginia (FFV) was refused service because it’s politically conservative or because it was religious. In fact, the two are connected. Wikipedia says this about the organization:
Family Foundation of Virginia is a socially conservative and Christian fundamentalist lobbying organization headquartered in the US city of Richmond, Virginia. It was focused originally on opposition to sex education. It has expanded to opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, nondiscrimination policies, and same-sex marriage. The organization supports legal conversion therapy for minors and increased legal restriction on abortion.
(By the way, it was the FFV that, it says, lobbied so hard against the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia that it failed to be ratified by the state, and that was the end of the line for the ERA).
And on their own page, under “Who we are,” the FFV says this:
The Family Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, non-partisan, faith-based organization. We believe there is no square inch in all the universe over which God has not claimed “Mine,” and that includes the arenas of civil government and public policy where we spend much of our time. We advocate for policies based on Biblical principles that enable families to flourish at the state and local level. We are uniquely positioned at the center of a national, state, and local coalition, which includes being associated with Focus on the Family.
Well, that sounds pretty religious to me, and on their own site they beef about being reused service at Metzger’s.
The question, then, is whether they were refuse service on religious grounds or on political grounds (i.e., Metzger’s just didn’t like the organization as a whole, and wasn’t refusing service because they were religious). I don’t think it matters whether they were refused service because Metzger’s itself had a religious belief that prevented them from serving the FFV, or whether the FFV was refused service because of its religious beliefs; the law above implies that the latter is enough to constitute a civil rights violation.
Here’s what the site says about being refused service:
The restaurant noted that many staff members were LGBTQ or women and that it believed the Family Foundation “seeks to deprive women and LGBTQ+ persons of their basic rights in Virginia.”
Gathje has previously written for the Family Foundation about a stalled effort in 2021 to remove an unenforceable provision of the Virginia Constitution — invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 — that defines marriage as between one man and one woman, saying that removing it would open the door to “polygamous, incestuous, kinship or even child marriages.”
Gathje said he thought it was unfair of the restaurant to deny service over the group’s religious beliefs.
“It was a very intolerant message being conveyed,” Gathje said.
Well, of course they were refused service either because they were political or religious in a way that the LGBTQ staff didn’t like, but in this case it’s impossible, I think, to separate the politics and the religion, since the former comes from the latter. And the reasons given for refusing service are ambiguous. While the FFV has offered to sit down with the restaurant’s owners to try to avoid situations like this, it could institute a lawsuit. If they were refused service because they were, say, black or Jewish, and that would be a valid lawsuit. But because the FFV doesn’t favor “basic rights” of LGBTQ+ people, does that count? Here are the “core principles” of the organization, which seem based on religion:
Human life, from fertilization until natural death, is sacred, and the right to life is fundamental to all other rights.
Marriage, as a lifelong union between one man and one woman, is an institution of God and a foundation for civil society.
Gender, beautifully expressed as either male or female according to God’s immutable design, is an important biological and social reality that must be respected by all.
Parents are ultimately responsible for the care and well-being of their children and should therefore be free from intrusive government involvement.
The right of conscience and the right to practice faith according to personal convictions are sacred and should not be denied or infringed.
The role and jurisdiction of government is clearly prescribed by our Constitution and consequently should be restrained from excessive involvement in the lives of citizens.
Human exploitation, in its various forms, is wrong, and governments have a legitimate and important role in curbing these abuses.
As you see from #2 and #3, they do favor things that violate the legal rights of LGBTA+ people. But does that count?
Perhaps lawyers could weigh in here. Would this refusal of service be illegal? If not now, would it be later if the Supreme Court, as is likely, decides for the web designer, and whether it does so purely on First Amendment grounds (“a website is an expression”) or whether it issues a broader ruling allowing any discrimination because of a businessperson’s religious beliefs?