- The Washington Times - Monday, September 9, 2019

A Michigan city says it won’t enforce its anti-discrimination law against political strategists who challenged the ordinance and argued that it would require them to work for candidates with whom they vehemently disagree.

Grant Strobl and Jacob Chludzinski, conservative consultants who run ThinkRight Strategies LLC, argued that Ann Arbor’s ordinance could force them to work a socialist who sought out their services.

In a federal lawsuit filed last month, they said they would not be allowed to refuse service because the city’s ordinance forbids discrimination based on political beliefs.

The strategists agreed to dismiss the litigation after the city said ThinkRight Strategies isn’t violating the law, according to court papers filed last week.

“The positive outcome here for Grant and Jacob underscores a core American principle: The government can’t force creative professionals to surrender free speech and religious freedoms in order to operate a business,” said Jonathan Scruggs, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the conservatives.

Their lawsuit was the latest to pit public accommodation laws against free speech rights. Other challenges across the country have involved Christian florists and bakers who asserted that their First Amendment rights were infringed when they were forced to provide services for same-sex weddings.

Stephen K. Postema, the attorney representing Ann Arbor, said the consultants’ assumptions about the ordinance were incorrect from the start of the lawsuit.

“The City never believed that the ordinance would apply to the plaintiffs or that they were in violation of the ordinance. There was not any City enforcement action against them or even any threatened enforcement against them,” Mr. Postema told The Washington Times in an email. “In the end, there was no actual legal controversy to burden the court with.”

The ordinance states that “full and equal access” to all goods and services must be provided without discrimination.

It defines discrimination as making a decision or refraining from making a decision based on real or perceived characteristics, namely “age, arrest record, color, disability, educational association, familial status, family responsibilities, gender expression, gender identity, genetic information, height, HIV status, marital status, national origin, political beliefs, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, source of income, veteran status, victim of domestic violence or stalking, or weight.”

Political beliefs are defined as “one’s opinion, whether or not manifested in speech or association, concerning the social, economic, and governmental structure of society and its institutions.”

Violators could be penalized $500 per day.

The law specifically excludes situations in which employing someone with a particular political belief would “interfere or threaten to interfere with his or her job performance” and includes a carve-out for policies that involve “a bona fide business necessity.”

Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law, said the agreement between the consultants and Ann Arbor makes sense because political consulting firms generally wouldn’t be considered places of public accommodation.

“Mission-driven organizations will often have to make hiring decisions based on ideology — that is, favoring employees that agree with the group’s beliefs. Ann Arbor would have been on shaky legal grounds to force the organization to comply with traditional requirements for places of public accommodation,” Mr. Blackman told The Times.

Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University, said the dismissal of the challenge likely won’t impact any of the other pubic accommodations lawsuits across the country involving same-sex wedding services.

“Bakeries or florists or others tend to have a more general business model than aiming to promote a particular political message,” Mr. Tuttle said.

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