In full transparency, the following is a press release from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office submitted to SOURCE media.
BOSTON – Arguing that a business owner’s religious beliefs do not give her a right to discriminate against customers, Attorney General Maura Healey today, May 17, led a coalition of 20 attorneys general in filing an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit defending the constitutionality of New York’s anti-discrimination law.
The brief was filed in the case of Emilee Carpenter LLC v. James, in which a wedding photography business, looking to deny services to LGBTQ+ couples, claims the New York public accommodations law violates the business owner’s rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.
The states’ brief is in support of New York Attorney General Letitia James, Interim Commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights Jonathan Smith, and Chemung County District Attorney Weedon Wetmore.
“Business owners can’t just pick and choose their customers and break laws that protect against discrimination,” said AG Healey. “These laws are in place to prevent economic, personal, and social harms among the LGBTQ+ community and we will always defend the right to be treated equally.”
New York’s public accommodations law forbids sexual-orientation discrimination by businesses engaged in sales to the public and forbids such businesses from posting a notice or advertisement indicating their intention to refuse service on the basis of sexual orientation.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York granted New York’s motion to dismiss and denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, holding that the application of New York’s public accommodations law does not violate the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of expression or free exercise of religion. The photographer has since appealed the lower court’s decision.
The attorneys general state they have strong interests in upholding laws to protect their residents and visitors from unlawful discrimination, and support civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ people, including prohibitions on discrimination in places of public accommodation – diners, stores, and other businesses that are part of daily life in a free society.
As the attorney generals’ brief describes, the First Amendment does not exempt businesses open to the public from state anti-discrimination laws. It also does not protect the speech in advertisements that give notice that places of public accommodations will refuse service on the basis of a protected characteristic. The brief argues that exempting businesses from public accommodations laws on the basis of the First Amendment would undermine the vital benefits these laws provide to residents and visitors: “Many Americans would face exclusion from a host of everyday businesses or, at the very least, face the ever-present threat that any business owner could refuse to serve them when they walk in the door—simply because of their sexual orientation, or their race, religion, or sex.”
According to the brief, states across the country have enacted laws to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in the commercial marketplace. At least 23 states and the District of Columbia, including Massachusetts, expressly prohibit such discriminatory advertising by public accommodations.
Discrimination against LGBTQ+ people is a severe and continuing problem. LGBTQ+ Americans are much more likely to be bullied, harassed, and attacked in hate crimes than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. According to the brief, this continuing discrimination harms the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ people, their families, and their communities, including increased rates of mental health disorders and suicide attempts, especially for LGBTQ+ youth.
Today’s brief follows many other instances where AG Healey led a coalition in defending public accommodation laws in other states, including New York’s anti-discrimination law in July 2021, Virginia’s law in August 2021, Minnesota’s law in March 2018, and Colorado’s law in October 2017 in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
In 2016, AG Healey worked closely with advocates, the business community, and transgender families to successfully garner support for the passage of the Massachusetts’ Public Accommodations Law.
Joining AG Healey in today’s brief are the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawai‘i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
Handling the case for Massachusetts are Adam Cambier, Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division; State Solicitor Bessie Dewar; and Deputy State Solicitor Julie Kobick.