• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court held that a state agency did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when it issued a liquor license to a private club that practiced racial discrimination.

Moose Lodge No. 107, a private club in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, allowed only white men to use its premises. One member of the club tried to bring Leroy Irvis, a prominent African AmericanAfrican Americans;segregated clubs[segregated clubs] politician, as a guest. After Irvis was refused service, he brought a civil suit in federal court. He contended that the state, by providing the club with a license, was unconstitutionally participating in the club’s policy of racial exclusion. Irvis pointed to Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority[case]Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority[Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority] (1961), in which the Court had ruled that a state agency did not have the right to lease property to a restaurant practicing racial segregation.State action;Moose Lodge v. Irvis[Moose Lodge v. Irvis]Private discrimination;Moose Lodge v. Irvis[Moose Lodge v. Irvis]

By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court rejected Irvis’s claim. Speaking for the majority, Justice William H. RehnquistRehnquist, William H.;Moose Lodge v. Irvis[Moose Lodge v. Irvis] interpreted the doctrine of state action narrowly and concluded that the mere licensing of the lodge did not constitute enough state involvement to bring the lodge’s policies under the umbrella of the Fourteenth Amendment. The state played “absolutely no part” in determining the membership or guest policies of organizations receiving state licenses. The circumstances were considered different from the “symbiotic relationship” that had existed between a lessor and a lessee in the Burton case. Because states commonly provide regulations for many necessary services, Rehnquist feared that a ruling upholding Irvis’s claim would “utterly emasculate” the long-standing distinction between private conduct and state action.

Dissenting, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., argued that the state was an “active participant” in the Moose Lodge bar, and he noted that the liquor licensing laws included “pervasive regulatory schemes” for many aspects of the licensee’s business. Justice William O. Douglas emphasized that liquor licenses were very scarce and that therefore the state’s policy restricted the equal access of African Americans to liquor. Ironically, Irvis was able to find recourse under Pennsylvania’s public accommodations law.

Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority

Civil Rights Cases

Equal protection clause

Private discrimination

Race and discrimination

State action

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