Supreme Court Rules That Jews and Arabs Are Protected Against Bias Under 1886 Federal Rights Laws

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that Jews and Arabs are protected against discrimination by federal civil rights laws adopted in 1886.

The decision came in two separate, but linked, opinions written by Justice Byron White. Both cases were heard by the high court on Feb. 25. One ruling allows Shaare Tefila Congregation, a Silver Spring, Md., Conservative congregation, to sue, under the civil rights laws, eight men who were arrested for spray painting swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans on the synagogue on Nov. 1, 1982.

The opinion in favor of the synagogue came after the court ruled that Majid Ghaidan AlKhazraji, an Iraqi-born professor, could sue St. Francis College in Pennsylvania on his charges that he was denied tenure because he was an Arab. White said that while Jews are not considered a separate race today, they were when the 1886 civil rights laws were adopted.

“Jews and Arabs were among the people then considered to be distinct races and hence within the protection of the statute,” White said. “Jews are not foreclosed from stating a cause of action against other members of what today is considered to be part of the Caucasian race.” In her argument before the court Feb. 25, Patricia Brennan, a Washington lawyer who represented the synagogue, said that while Jews are not a separate race, those who vandalized the synagogue acted because they believe Jews are non-whites.

Deborah Garret, a Baltimore lawyer representing one of the vandals, argued that while the act was one of religious discrimination it was not racist under the federal laws.

Kenneth Lipson, president of the Jewish Advocacy Center, which seeks to bring legal action against those committing anti-Semitic acts, expressed to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Monday his delight with the decision. “It sends the clear and emphatic message” that the civil rights laws can be brought “against those who commit acts of anti-Semitic violence.”

This was why the congregation brought a suit against the vandals in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore charging that its civil rights had been violated.

The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., upheld the district court’s rejection of the suit in a 2-1 decision which said Jews could not use the civil rights law for protection as they were not a separate non-white race.

But the Supreme Court decision Monday noted that the 1886 law was “intended to protect from discrimination identifiable classes of persons who are subjected to intentional discrimination solely because of their ancestry or ethnic characteristics.”

The decision will allow the congregation to reinstate their suit in the district court. The suit seeks $3,000 to cover the cost of repainting the synagogue’s walls, with any other money awarded going to the Montgomery Country Human Relations Commission. The synagogue is in Montgomery country which borders Washington.

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