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D.C.’s Discrimination Escalation

From The Scrapbook

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Readers outside of Washington may or may not be aware that there has been a more or less continuous movement, since the late 1960s, to grant statehood to the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital city. It came about as close to success as it ever will during the Carter administration (1978), when a constitutional voting rights amendment passed Congress but failed to be ratified by the requisite number of states. 

Cartoon of Marion Barry

His Honor Marion Barry

The Scrapbook isn’t about to rehearse the arguments for or against statehood; we simply mention this fact by way of introducing the latest reason why statehood will never be granted to the District. Councilman Marion Barry​—​the onetime four-term mayor of Washington​—​has just introduced legislation to add “ex-offenders” to the list of people guaranteed legal safeguards against discrimination. Lest you think adding convicted felons to the burgeoning roll of protected species is a nonstarter, think again. The D.C. Council is expected to pass Barry’s bill.

Indeed, as the Washington Post delicately points out, Washington’s Human Rights Act is “considered one of the broadest anti-discrimination documents in the nation .  .  . [offering] protection based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, familial status, family responsibilities, matriculation, political affiliation, disability, source of income, and place of residence or business.”

As readers might imagine, the beleaguered business community in the nation’s capital has registered its self-evident concern about an ex-offender provision​—​must they really be obliged, under punishment of law, not to discriminate against convicted murderers and rapists?​—​but as the existing act suggests, such concerns usually fall on deaf ears in city government.

To be sure, as the redoubtable Marion Barry insists, ex-offenders are, by definition, people who have done their time in prison and are expected to make their way in civil society. (And Councilman Barry, an alumnus of the Federal Correctional Institution, Petersburg, and the Federal Correctional Institution, Loretto, knows whereof he speaks on this.) Nor does The Scrapbook believe that people should be punished ad infinitum for crimes committed in the past​—​or, put another way, for the not-so-serious offenses from which they have learned their lesson. Still, in a city with 11 percent unemployment, is it necessary or advisable to add “ex-offenders” to a comically broad list that will place another burden on employers already dealing with an Orwellian bureaucracy? 

It is worth noting, for readers attuned to the ironies of life, that one of the severest critics of the Barry measure is the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington. They argue, and not without reason, that the Human Rights Act was intended to protect District residents who face discrimination for “arbitrary circumstances,” such as age or sex or race. The decision to kill somebody, or commit grand theft auto, or even to possess crack cocaine, is not the same thing.

Happy Birthday, IJ

Everyone loves a David and Goliath story, and that’s part of the reason we take pleasure in honoring the Institute for Justice as it closes out its 20th-anniversary year. Its “merry band of litigators,” in the words of another admirer, go to court to fight for people’s basic rights​—​to earn a living free from unreasonable regulation, to criticize the government, to keep their own property, to send their children to the school of their choice​—​and its grateful beneficiaries include hair braiders and street vendors and limo drivers. Our current favorite IJ clients, though, are a few dozen Benedictine monks in Covington, Louisiana. 

For decades, the monks of Saint -Joseph Abbey had been making simple wooden caskets when it came time to bury their own. But in 2007, seeking new means of supporting themselves by their labor, they opened Saint Joseph Woodworks, to make caskets for sale. Instantly, they were informed that it was a crime, punishable by fines and jail, to sell “funeral merchandise” without a funeral director’s license and the acquisition of costly embalming equipment: Thus spake the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, eight of whose nine members are licensed funeral directors.

Never mind that the monks had no intention of embalming anyone or handling dead bodies​—​the funeral cartel wasn’t about to brook minor competition. It squelched even an attempt to secure a legislative exemption from licensure for the brothers of Saint Joseph.

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