Attorney General Bonta Joins Multistate Coalition in Defense of Virginia’s Public Accommodation Law

Friday, August 27, 2021
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OAKLAND – California Attorney General Rob Bonta today joined a coalition of 20 attorneys general in filing an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in defense of Virginia’s public accommodation law in Updegrove v. Herring. The case involves a photographer who, although never asked to photograph a same-sex wedding, is seeking to invalidate the Virginia Values Act — a public accommodation law — in order to refuse wedding photography services to same-sex couples and to publish a statement on his website advertising his desire to deny such services to same-sex couples. In the friend-of-the-court brief, the coalition urges the court to grant Virginia’s request to affirm the district court’s dismissal of the case and deny the appellants' efforts to block the public accommodation law. 

“Discrimination is discrimination no matter how you frame it,” said Attorney General Bonta. “And, the fact is, the LGBTQ community has been forced to confront it for far too long. Public accommodation laws aim to alleviate that injustice by defending and upholding the basic human right to equality. California will not stand idly by as these landmark laws and our communities are attacked over and over again. We urge the court to affirm the dismissal of this latest attempt to undermine our laws.”

Public accommodation laws — like California’s and Virginia’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. A ruling in favor of the plaintiff in this case could undermine the rights of LGBTQ Americans nationwide and pave the way for further challenges to laws that prevent businesses from discriminating based on protected, immutable characteristics.

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 Virginia’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 appellants 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, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia.

A copy of the amicus brief is available here.

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