487 U. S. 1
June 20, 1988
A statute with the Orwellian sounding name “Human Rights Law” banned certain private clubs from discriminating in membership based on race or sex. The law was limited in several respects, leaving alone clubs with less than 400 members, and clubs that were religious or benevolent in character – this based on the state’s finding that business activity was not prevalent at those organizations. A large club mounted a facial challenge to the law, based on both the First Amendment right to freedom of association, and the Equal Protection clause, given the aforementioned exemptions from the law’s reach.
The Supreme Court unanimously rejected these facial challenges. White first brushed aside one of those asinine jurisdiction challenges, because Court precedent did allow private associations to mount facial challenges. Nonetheless, in light of prior rulings in Rotary Club and Roberts v. Jaycees, White said there was little chance the New York law was invalid on its face because of the association concerns. Indeed, it seemed carefully drawn to leave most freedom of association rights intact, and could not be described as overbroad. With respect to the Equal Protection challenge, White said that New York had proffered rational reasons for exempting religious and benevolent organizations, and that no hard evidence had been offered to rebut the state’s reasoning.
O’Connor, joined by Kennedy, concurred to say that there could be an odd case where the law did violate a club’s association rights, and that the law was still vulnerable to an as-applied challenge. Scalia did not join the Equal Protection section, but concurred in judgment. He did not take the state’s reasoning at face value, but looked at the clubs classified as religious and benevolent for himself before concluding that the distinction drawn by the law was a defensible one (in case your wondering, ‘benevolent’ organization are mostly lodges like the Masons, VFW, or Knights of Columbus).
I have already given my opinion about laws like this in my Rotary Club write up, and I will not repeat it here. If you follow the principle of stare decisis, then this case was correctly decided. But I would have overruled Rotary Club, because that decision was awful, and doesn’t deserve precedential respect.