Attorney General Bill Lockyer Takes Action to Protect State Anti-Discrimination Laws
(Sacramento)-Attorney General Bill Lockyer today formally requested that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rehear its recent decision in Thomas v. Anchorage Equal Rights Commission which threatens California's anti-discrimination laws. On January 14, 1999, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of two landlords who refused to rent to unmarried couples in violation of City of Anchorage and Alaska state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of marital status. Because California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of marital status, the Ninth Circuit's decision, if it is upheld, could undermine California's ability to enforce state and local anti-discrimination laws.
"The court's decision threatens to roll back California's civil rights laws to 19th century levels," Lockyer said. "In effect, if this ruling stands, it tells landlords, and potentially other commercial enterprises, that religious discrimination is acceptable in this state. The people of California won't tolerate such discrimination, and, as the people's lawyer, I strongly urge the court to reconsider this flawed decision."
Last week, Lockyer informed the Attorneys General of each of the states within the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction that California would be filing a brief urging the court to reconsider its decision and invited the other states to join his effort. Five of the 7 remaining Ninth Circuit states accepted Lockyer's invitation and joined California's brief in support of Alaska, including: Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
California's "friend of the court" brief supports a formal petition filed by the State of Alaska requesting that the Ninth Circuit rehear the "Thomas" case. The court's ruling concluded that a landlord's strongly-held religious views, if they serve as the basis for refusing to rent to unmarried couples, should be protected by free speech doctrines and that Alaska's anti-discrimination laws "substantially burden" a landlord's religious rights. California's brief contends that the decision in this case "seriously impairs the ability of the (Ninth Circuit) States to enforce their civil rights laws and prevent discrimination in housing." Due to the fact that many of the States in the Ninth Circuit have adopted numerous important civil rights protections for their citizens, including laws designed to prohibit discrimination on the basis of marital status and to bar discrimination in rental housing, the court's decision jeopardizes the States' ability to enforce those laws.