By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor
“Those situations in which the Court may require special treatment on account of religion are, in my view, few and far between, and this view is amply supported by the course of constitutional litigation in this area.”
-Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 423 (1963) (Harlan, J., dissenting)
Were Maurice Bessinger still alive, he would undoubtedly be a strong supporter of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Had that law been available in 1964, history might well read differently.
Mr. Bessinger owned a small chain of barbecue restaurants in South Carolina known as “Piggie Park.” As a matter of company policy, African Americans were prohibited from consuming food on the premises of his restaurants and were required to place and pick up orders from the kitchen window.
When a class action was filed against Mr. Bessinger under the public accommodations provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among his defenses was the claim that the Act violated the First Amendment because “his religious beliefs compel him to oppose any integration of the races whatsoever.” Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, Inc., 256 F. Supp. 941 (1966). The court had no sympathy for his defense. “Undoubtedly,” it said, “defendant Bessinger has a constitutional right to espouse religious beliefs of his own choosing, however, he does not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens. This court refuses to lend credence and support to his position that he has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of the Negro race in his business establishments upon the ground that to do so would violate his sacred religious beliefs.” 256 F. Supp. at 945.
Mr. Bessinger partially prevailed at the trial court on interstate commerce grounds, but lost on appeal and was assessed attorney’s fees for his trouble, the Fourth Circuit finding that in view of a prior Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the assertion that he was not bound because the law “contravenes the will of God” and constituted interference with “the free exercise of the Defendant’s religion” was legally frivolous. Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, Inc., 377 F.2d 433 (4th Cir. 1967), aff’d, 390 U.S. 400 (1968).
Had the Religious Freedom Restoration Act been in effect when Mr. Bessinger was sued, might he have prevailed? Perhaps.