Byline: David E. Bernstein, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The agenda of left-wing activists anxious to elevate antidiscrimination concerns above all others poses an acute threat to civil liberties. The First Amendment prohibits the government from interfering with freedom of expression, which includes free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. But all of these civil-libertarian restrictions on government power are at risk from so-called antidiscrimination laws. For example:
* In Berkeley [Calif.], the [U.S.] Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] threatened to sanction three neighborhood activists for organizing community opposition to a plan to turn a rundown hotel into a homeless center. HUD alleged that the activists had violated the Fair Housing Act by interfering with a project that would serve a group of people who would be disproportionately mentally ill or recovering substance abusers, protected groups under the act. HUD spokesperson John Phillips, trying to parry free-speech concerns raised by the media, instead stoked them. "To ask questions is one thing," Phillips told reporters. "To write brochures and articles and go out and actively organize people to say, 'We don't want those people in those structures,' is another."
* In Denver, the city government refused to issue a Columbus Day parade permit unless the organizers signed an agreement stating that "there will be no references, depictions or acknowledgment of Christopher Columbus during the parade; and no speeches or wreath-laying for Christopher Columbus will be conducted." The city was responding to pressure from American Indian activists who alleged that a parade celebrating Columbus would create an illegal "hostile public environment."
* In New York City, Michelle Ganzy sued the Allen Christian School for firing her after she became pregnant out of wedlock. Ganzy, like all of the school's teachers, had agreed to serve as a role model for her students, in part by behaving in accordance with the school's conservative moral beliefs. Nevertheless, Ganzy sued for sex discrimination. A federal court, seemingly oblivious to the threat this lawsuit posed to the autonomy of religious institutions, ruled in her favor, holding that "[r]estrictions on pregnancy are not permitted because they are gender-discriminatory by definition."
* In Eugene, Ore., the state Newspaper Publishers Association published a list of 80 words and phrases that its members should ban from real-estate advertisements to avoid liability under federal, state or local fair-housing laws. The forbidden words and phrases include language that signifies an obvious intent to violate fair-housing laws (e.g., "no Mexicans"), but also language that is merely descriptive, such as "near church" or "walking distance to synagogue." Fair-housing officials overzealously interpret such phrases as expressing an illicit preference for Christians and Jews, respectively. The list also includes phrases that some fair-housing officials believe are used as codes to discourage minorities ("exclusive neighborhood," "board approval required"') or families with children ("quiet tenants," "bachelor pad").
There are a number of other phrases that did not make the Oregon list but that some realtors avoid nonetheless for fear of liability, including the following: master bedroom (either sexist or purportedly evocative of slavery and therefore insulting to African-Americans), great view (allegedly expresses preference for the nonblind) and walk-up (supposedly discourages the disabled).
These anecdotes are just a few examples of the growing threat antidiscrimination laws pose to civil liberties. The clash of civil liberties and antidiscrimination laws has emerged due to the gradual expansion of such laws to the point at which they regulate just about all aspects of American life. …