Conservative Michigan consultants challenge city’s political bias ban
A Michigan city’s anti-discrimination law would force political operatives to work for candidates with whom they vehemently disagree, a consulting firm says in a lawsuit challenging Ann Arbor’s ordinance.
Grant Strobl and Jacob Chludzinski, conservatives who run ThinkRight Strategies LLC, said they fear having a socialist client come to them. Under the ordinance, which forbids discrimination based on political beliefs, they wouldn’t be permitted to refuse, they say.
Their lawsuit is the latest to pit public accommodation laws against the First Amendment. Other challenges involved florists and bakers who said their own rights to free speech were trampled when they were ordered to participate in services or advocate ideas with which they disagree, such as same-sex marriage.
The consultants said they would even have to change their advertising strategies because saying they work for conservative principles could be deemed exclusionary under the law.
“This is a constitutional anathema. Citizens should be free to choose for themselves what they say and what they celebrate — not the government,” they said in their 57-page complaint, filed in federal court.
Officials in Ann Arbor, a liberal college town, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The law says “full and equal access” to all goods and services must be provided without discrimination, and it defines discrimination as making a decision — or refraining from making a decision — based on a bevy of real or perceived characteristics.
They are “age, arrest record, color, disability, educational association, familial status, family responsibilities, gender expression, gender identity, genetic information, height, HIV status, marital status, national origin, political beliefs, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, source of income, veteran status, victim of domestic violence or stalking, or weight.”
“Political beliefs” are further defined as “one’s opinion, whether or not manifested in speech or association, concerning the social, economic, and governmental structure of society and its institutions.”
Under the law, if the city deems a complaint valid, the violator will be penalized $500 per day.
The law specifically excludes situations in which employing someone with a particular political belief would “interfere or threaten to interfere with his or her job performance” and includes a carve-out for policies that involve “a bona fide business necessity.”
The consultants’ lawsuit says that definition is too vague for them to know whether they are exempted. They also said the definition of political beliefs is so vague that it “cannot be understood by a person of ordinary intelligence.”
Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious liberty law firm representing the consultants, asked a federal judge to issue an injunction against the ordinance.
“The First Amendment protects people’s freedom to choose what to say and what to endorse, and Americans don’t have to wait to be punished to protect this freedom,” said Jonathan Scruggs, a senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom.
Public accommodation laws have come under scrutiny at the highest legal levels. The biggest flashpoint has stemmed from clashes between devout Christian artisans and same-sex couples.
A baker in Colorado has been fighting for years to preserve his right to refuse to bake cakes celebrating same-sex weddings. He said he is willing to sell pre-made cakes but forcing him to bake a cake for something he opposes violates his First Amendment rights.
His case made it to the Supreme Court, which returned it to Colorado with a warning to the local board not to show antipathy toward religion when it reviews the case.
Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University, drew a distinction between that case and case of the consultants, saying bakeries and florist shops aren’t in the business of political messaging.
He said Ann Arbor probably doesn’t have the consulting firm in its sights. “I seriously doubt this organization has been threatened by enforcement,” he said.
Other cities across the country, including the District of Columbia, put political beliefs alongside race, sex and others among the protected classes in public accommodations laws, said Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law.
He said the laws are used to prevent restaurants and shops from refusing to serve people over political differences.
If Virginia had such a protection, Mr. Tuttle said, it might have applied when Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former White House press secretary, was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia.