Attorney General Bonta Joins Multi-State Coalition in Defense of New York’s Public Accommodation Law

Friday, July 2, 2021
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OAKLAND – California Attorney General Rob Bonta today joined a coalition of 21 attorneys general in filing an amicus brief in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York in defense of New York’s public accommodation law in Emilee Carpenter, LLC v. James. The case involves a wedding photographer who posted a notice on her website indicating her intention to refuse service on the basis of sexual orientation — in violation of the state’s anti-discrimination laws — and then sued the state to seek an exemption. In the friend-of-the-court brief, the coalition urges the court to grant the State of New York’s request to dismiss the case and deny the plaintiff’s efforts to block the public accommodation law.

“Refusing service to someone because of who they love or who they are isn’t just discriminatory, it’s wrong,” said Attorney General Bonta. “All of our communities deserve to be protected. We can’t afford to sit back in the face of efforts to undermine lawful protections. As this country faces an explosion of state legislation targeting LGBTQ+ Americans, it’s more important than ever that we protect and uphold public accommodation laws. Discrimination against any of us paves the way for discrimination against us all. In California, we’ll continue to push back against those who seek to reverse our progress and stand up for all of our people. We urge the court to toss out this meritless attack on New York’s law.”

Public accommodation laws — like California’s and New York’s — work to protect the rights of all state residents, particularly members of disadvantaged groups, from the economic, personal, and social harms caused by discrimination. These laws have long been held constitutional and prohibit discrimination in business establishments based upon specified protected characteristics such as race, gender, national origin, and sexual orientation. The plaintiff’s proposal that New York apply its public accommodations to only essential, non-expressive, or non-internet businesses would fundamentally undermine the law’s purpose and administration over countless businesses that could be deemed “expressive,” including architects, hairdressers, make-up artists, chefs, and more. A ruling that exempts “expressive” businesses from public accommodations laws would leave LGBTQ people — and myriad other protected groups — vulnerable to discrimination across a wide range of economic activity.  

In the friend-of-the-court brief, the coalition asserts, among other things, that:

  • States prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people in public accommodations to prevent severe economic, personal, and social harms;
  • The First Amendment does not exempt businesses open to the public from state anti-discrimination laws;
  • Prohibiting businesses from discriminating against customers does not compel speech;
  • Public accommodations laws like New York’s satisfy any level of constitutional scrutiny;
  • States have a compelling interest in eliminating sexual orientation discrimination in public accommodations; and
  • A First Amendment exemption to public accommodations laws of the kind sought by the plaintiffs would dramatically undermine anti-discrimination laws.

In filing the amicus brief, Attorney General Bonta joins the attorneys general of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia.

A copy of the amicus brief is available here.

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