Race or Religion: Louisiana Judge Looks to History on Jewish Discrimination in the Workplace

On July 16, after hearing Bonadona v. Louisiana College, a magistrate judge in Louisiana ruled in favor of Joshua Bonadona, a football coach who was denied a job because of his “Jewish descent.” As part of his decision, Judge Mark Hornsby had to determine whether Jews should be considered a religious or racial group. Ultimately, he deemed antisemitism to be a form of racism in the law.

When Bonadona arrived in 2009 at Louisiana College, a Baptist college in Pineville, Louisiana, he tried out for the football team and won his place as a kicker. Despite the fact that it was “widely known” that Bonadona’s mother was Jewish, he quickly converted and became a practicing Christian, often even leading his team’s Christian devotional. After a successful playing career, he interviewed for an assistant coaching position at his alma mater. The coach wanted to hire him, but college president Rick Brewer blocked his employment, citing his “Jewish descent.”

Bonadona sued. He argued that since he was a practicing Christian, his only connection to Judaism was his racial heritage.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects against racial discrimination in the workplace, though it does not define “race.” Judge Hornsby was thus tasked with providing an answer to an age-old question: is Jewishness a religion or an ethnicity? The answer to this question is remarkably complex. As Rabbi David Wolpe explains, “[Jews] aren’t a race because you can’t convert to a race…On the other hand, it’s not a religion because you’re not born into a religion. It’s a category that does not fit neatly into 21st century ways of thinking.” Accordingly, Judge Hornsby admittedly struggled with the distinction, noting in his decision that the answer to the question of whether Jewishness constitutes a race, a religion, or both should be found in socio-political, rather than legal, inquiry.

The question of Jewishness as a racial category is one that courts have grappled with for decades. The most prominent case on this topic is Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb, in which a Maryland synagogue, vandalized with anti-Semitic slogans and images, brought a suit against the white perpetrators for racially-motivated property crimes. The Supreme Court decided that Jews were a distinct racial group, separate from Caucasian whites, and thus that the crimes in question could be considered racially discriminatory. Furthermore, in a United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit case, the Court ruled in Village of Freeport v. Barrella that Hispanics were a protected race under Title VII. Yet neither Barrella nor Shaare Tefila dealt with whether Jews are a protected race under Title VII, meaning that the lower court in Louisiana had to come to its own conclusion.

Judge Hornsby, citing the aforementioned cases, found that Jews have been treated like an ethnic or racial group throughout American and European history and, as such, they should be protected like other races from employment discrimination. The decision was a momentous step forward in the fight against antisemitism. By barring discrimination against people of Jewish descent in his district, Judge Hornsby is preventing mistreatment of a group that many consider to be a distinct race, regardless of the scientific ambiguity of defining racial groups in the first place. His decision made explicit reference to the fight against antisemitism in America, and noted that “anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination amount to racial discrimination.” Rightly, the decision deemed that protection for Jews against biased employers like Louisiana College is necessary.

In the eyes of some Jewish advocates, however, Hornsby’s decision could have mixed results. These analysts worry that it will confirm the assertions of white supremacists, who believe that Jews are members of a distinct and inferior race. They are right that needless racial distinctions and boundaries, especially when codified, are pernicious. The fact that white supremacists could use the decision to defend their rhetoric is cause for concern. Hornsby’s ruling, while appropriately nuanced, was clear that the decision is a reflection of the treatment of Jews as a race in American history, not a determination that Jews are biologically a racial group. The real risk that the decision will help “perpetuate harmful stereotypes” about Jews is in tension with the decision’s substantial and tangible benefits for Jews in the workplace.

Louisiana College has already filed an appeal, so whether Hornsby’s decision gets overturned, or has its scope broadened beyond the Western District of Louisiana, remains to be seen. Regardless, it is a decision that sends a message that discrimination against Jews in the workplace is not just intolerable, but also illegal.

 

By Isaiah Affron

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