The Time A Corporation Cited Religious Freedom As A Way To Avoid Desegregation

UPDATE: Rachel Maddow discussed the Piggie Park case on msnbc last night.

In her dissent in the Hobby Lobby case today, Justice Ginsburg mentioned a 1968 precedent in which the owner of a chain of barbecue restaurants in South Carolina “refused to serve black patrons based on his religious beliefs opposing racial integration.”

The Hobby Lobby majority emphasized that their ruling applied only to contraceptive coverage but would not undercut laws prohibiting racial discrimination. The conservative Justices said that the latter are “precisely tailored” to meet the government’s compelling interest in eradicating racial discrimination, while the Affordable Care Act provision falls in this case because it is not the least restrictive means to meet the government’s interest in providing women access to contraception.

At the time that that case, Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, was being decided, the majority of Americans had religious objections to interracial marriage and many preachers made the religious case for segregation. Efforts to defend the purported right of Christian schools to discriminate against African Americans greatly shaped the modern-day Religious Right.

In its 8-0 decision in Piggie Park, the Supreme Court upheld the Fourth Circuit Court’s ruling against the restaurant chain and found that it was not exempt from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 simply because its owner had religious objections to the law. 

The Supreme Court threw out Piggie Park’s “patently frivolous” claims when determining that Piggie Park must pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees:

Indeed, this is not even a borderline case, for the respondents interposed defenses so patently frivolous that a denial of counsel fees to the petitioners would be manifestly inequitable. Thus, for example, the “fact that the defendants had discriminated both at [the] drive-ins and at [the sandwich shop] was . . . denied . . . [although] the defendants could not and did not undertake at the trial to support their denials. Includable in the same category are defendants’ contention, twice pleaded after the decision in Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U. S. 294, . . . that the Act was unconstitutional on the very grounds foreclosed by McClung, and defendants’ contention that the Act was invalid because it ‘contravenes the will of God’ and constitutes an interference with the ‘free exercise of the Defendant’s religion.'” (emphasis added)

The attorney representing the petitioners suing Piggie Park also addressed in court the “First Amendment religious privilege claim that petitioner asserted that his religion required him” to deny service to black customers.

“I’m just a fair man. I want to be known as a hard-working, Christian man that loves God and wants to further (God’s) work throughout the world as I have been doing throughout the last 25 years,” the late Piggie Park owner, Maurice Bessinger, told South Carolina’s The State newspaper about the court case.

According to the paper, Bessinger continued to distribute “pro-slavery tracts at his Maurice’s Gourmet Barbecue headquarters in West Columbia – under the shadow of the enormous Confederate flag he flew outside.”

At the time, Bessinger was distributing pro-slavery audiotapes and gave customers a discount if they bought his literature. South Carolina had “biblical slavery,” Bessinger claimed, which was kinder and different than other forms of slavery. Bessinger established his Piggie Park Enterprises in Cayce in 1953. In the 1950s and 1960s, Bessinger put signs in his stores saying blacks weren’t welcome.

Also in 1964, Bessinger — who at that time owned four Piggie Park restaurants — stood in the door of one of his stores to prevent a black minister from entering. Bessinger would allow blacks to buy food to take out, but not to eat in his restaurant. African-Americans, represented by then-civil rights lawyer Matthew Perry, took him to court.

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Bessinger 8-0.

Ironically, that Supreme Court opinion — Newman vs. Piggie Park Enterprises — enshrined in law the concept that lawyers who win civil rights cases are entitled to have their attorneys’ fees paid by the loser. “If successful plaintiffs were routinely forced to bear their own attorney’s fees, few aggrieved parties would be in a position to advance the public interest by” going to court, the Supreme Court said, according to the book “Matthew J. Perry” by Lewis Burke and Belinda Gergel.