Arkansas gun range bans Muslims, claims “private club” exemption

Recent expansions of LGBT rights and protections have led many Christians to spearhead a new movement seeking new, parallel protections for what they call religious freedom, but in effect amount to nothing more than Christian privilege.

If you’re wondering where the line falls between religious freedom and Christian privilege, there’s a simple test. When a Christian school, business, public servant or private individual claims the right to refuse employment, housing, accommodation or service to an LGBT person, replace “Christian” with “Muslim” and see if a Christian would defend their denial. Or, alternatively, replace LGBT with “black” or “female” or “Muslim” and ask the same question.

If a Christian is claiming a freedom to discriminate against gay people, but that claim is limited to their Christianity and someone else’s gayness, then it isn’t a claim based in freedom.

Yesterday, Christians were given an opportunity to take this test when the Gun Cave Shooting Range in Arkansas told FOX Business Network that they are banning Muslims from their business. As the shooting range’s owner, Jan Morgan, explained:

If you are a Muslim, then you have made a conscious decision to align with Islam, and surely you have read the Quran…I’m going to air on the side of caution for the safety of my customers. I can’t hand you a loaded gun if you agree with those verses.

Morgan went on to explain that her decision does not violate the public accommodations clause in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because she isn’t operating a business at all. She’s operating a “private club,” and is therefore allowed to refuse service to whomever she wishes.

While Gun Cave Shooting Range’s Facebook page describes the range as a private club, its website does not. Additionally, the voicemail at the number listed on their website makes no mention of the range being private, requiring membership or anything else that would lead one to believe that it is anything other than a public gun range.

So is Morgan’s claim to a private club exemption from the Civil Rights Act legitimate? And if it isn’t, then what makes her ban on Muslims any different from another business refusing service to gays?

Gun Cave Shooting Range isn’t a private club

The Civil Rights Act exempts “private clubs” from its public accommodations section, but it doesn’t explicitly define what constitutes a private club except to say that the exemption applies to organizations that are “not in fact open to the public.” In the debate over the language of the Civil Rights Act this was understood to apply to organizations “whose membership is genuinely selective on some reasonable basis” and are “bona fide social, fraternal, civic, and other organizations which select their own members.”

Shooting range, via Wikimedia Commons

Shooting range, via Wikimedia Commons

In this context, courts have interpreted the private club exemption to apply to organizations that have objective standards for admission, with claims breaking down when they become arbitrary. For example, the Elks Club was allowed to refuse membership to African-Americans, but only because they made clear that “only white male citizens of the United States who believe in God and who live within the jurisdictional limits of the local lodge” could be members. Simply saying “whites only” wouldn’t have been enough, as courts have found that standard to be “unreasonable.”

Of particular significance to Gun Cave’s claim, courts have also excluded organizations that use a singular religious criterion from private club exemptions. Additionally, clubs have to implement their standards of membership in accordance with some form of formal procedure, and members are generally required to have some influence on the member selection process. For the owner of a business to simply post on Facebook, as Morgan has, that you’re a private club, and to use that and that alone as an excuse to refuse service to whomever you feel like excluding, isn’t enough.

So, is her claim protected?

Based on how the courts have defined what counts as a private club, Gun Cave Shooting Range should be subject to public accommodation requirements. They openly advertise to the general public; they don’t appear to have formal membership requirements; and even if they do, it doesn’t appear that members have any say in the selection of new members.

This being the case, are they still entitled to discriminate based on their religious beliefs? Or, rather, their beliefs about other religions?

The answer’s pretty obvious to me, but I’m not the one who claims that Christians’ beliefs about gay people are reason enough to deny them adoption services.

 


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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