The Islamic Center, housed in a magnificent building in Washington, D.C., has been around for over a half-century, but it is seldom in the news. Unless you drive by (on Embassy Row) you would not know that it there. Because it is supposed to be a peaceful place of worship, we would not expect local police to enter.
Yet last March they did. Three D.C. Metropolitan police officers entered the center, at the direction of an imam, and removed six Muslim women. Their crime? They were worshiping peacefully in the main prayer hall after the imam announced that women were forbidden to enter that area.
What happened in Washington, D.C., should remind us of the peaceful sit-ins of the 1960s. The courts found that the police action removing people from private businesses violated the Equal Protection Clause.
In a series of cases the lower federal courts and the Supreme Court reversed convictions of black and white civil protestors who were convicted under state criminal trespass or disturbing the peace laws when they sat in the “white-only” section of various lunch counters and restaurants and refused to move after having been ordered to do so by the agent of the establishment.
Neither state nor federal laws at the time required the restaurants to serve blacks, but the courts found “state action” that violated Equal Protection. In Garner v. Louisiana (1961), for example, the Supreme Court reversed the convictions (under a state disturbing the peace statute) of those who had engaged in a sit-in, because the record was “totally devoid of evidentiary support” that petitioners caused any disturbance of the peace. They sat there quietly.
Peterson v. Greenville (1963) reversed the trespass conviction of blacks who had engaged in a lunch counter sit-in. The store manager asked the blacks to leave because integrated service was “contrary to local customs” and a local ordinance. The Supreme Court held that “these convictions cannot stand,” whether or not a local ordinance supported the store manager. In Lombard v. Louisiana (1963), decided the same day, the Court reversed the trespass convictions of three blacks and one white who had sat in a privately owned restaurant that served only whites. The case involved no statutes or ordinances, but the police did say that “no additional sit-in demonstrations … will be permitted.” Justice Douglas, concurring, argued that there was state action when the state judiciary “put criminal sanctions behind racial discrimination in public places.”
There are precious little differences between the sit-in cases of the 1960s and the Muslim sit-in cases. We knew, in the 1960s, that the Equal Protection Clause forbids discrimination based on color. We know now that the Equal Protection Clause forbids discrimination based on gender. We know that the lunch counters were open to anyone who wanted to eat, except blacks, or blacks had to sit at a special section. We know that the mosque is open to anyone who wants to worship God, except that women must sit at special places — sort of like “back of the bus.”
And we know that the discrimination based on race or sex could not exist without the help of the local police. The question is why the D.C. police — who have real crime to worry about — are spending their time and taxpayer dollars to enforce sharia law.
Our First Amendment protects the right of people to believe whatever they want to believe. But there are limits to how they can act on their beliefs. For example, a religion may believe that racial segregation is God’s way. They can believe that, but the state cannot aid that belief by, for example, giving federally subsidized loans to colleges that discriminate on the basis of race. The people of Washington, D.C., should not be enforcing shariah law.