Pacific Legal Foundation joins race discrimination fight linked to Asheville board

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  • Pacific Legal Foundation is backing five plaintiffs who have sued Asheville for rejecting their applications to serve on the city's Human Relations Commission. The plaintiffs argue the city rejected them because they are white.
  • PLF labels the city's racial preferences for the commission unconstitutional. It filed an amended complaint Tuesday in the case.
  • Asheville has filed a motion to dismiss the case. The city argues none of the plaintiffs has been rejected. The city says it has scheduled an Oct, 10 meeting to appoint commission members.

The Pacific Legal Foundation is siding with five Asheville-area residents who are suing the city because of racial criteria tied to its Human Relations Commission.

PLF and the five plaintiffs filed an amended complaint Tuesday in the case Miall v. Asheville. Plaintiffs argue that Asheville rejected them for the advisory human relations group because they are white.

“We’re involved because we want to vindicate the right of individuals to be treated equally,” said PLF attorney Jessica Thompson in an interview with Carolina Journal. “Race is but an arbitrary classification that Individuals do not choose. We are born with our race. We get to choose our affiliations. I’m affiliated with Pacific Legal Foundation. I chose to go to UNC Chapel Hill and be affiliated with that university. But I didn’t get to choose my race or my skin color.”

“We believe individuals should be treated as individuals,” Thompson added. “And their experiences and their unique perspectives should be valued as such.”

Attorney Jessica Thompson of the Pacific Legal Foundation speaks with Carolina Journal.

“The opportunity to serve your local community should not depend on your race,” said PLF attorney Andrew Quinio in a news release. “Asheville’s candidates for public service should be treated as individuals, instead of mere members of arbitrary racial groups. Asheville needs to stop making assumptions about people’s experiences and qualifications based on arbitrary and offensive racial classifications.”

Carolina Journal first reported on the legal fight on Sept. 6.

Asheville’s Human Relations Commission, created in 2018, is a volunteer group designed to “promote and improve human relations and achieve equity among all citizens in the city by carrying out the city’s human relations program,” according to the original complaint filed in US District Court.

City rules originally dictated that eight of the group’s 15 members would be black or “Latinx.” Rules also specified that the board also must include two “members of the LGBTQ community,” two adults from 18-25 years old, two or three people who live in public housing, two people “with a disability,” and three people “recognized as community leaders.”

In June 2022, the commission tabled a recommendation from Asheville’s city attorney to remove the group’s racial qualifications. At the time, commission chair Tanya Rodriguez explained her “concern that ‘our color isn’t diluted out of the Commission,’” according to the complaint.

Asheville later dropped the number of committee members from 15 to nine and changed the membership qualifications.

The commission publicized at least four open positions in February 2023. All five plaintiffs applied.

“Plaintiffs did not meet Defendants’ racial criteria nor the other criteria of being disabled, living in public housing, between the ages of 25 and 18, a member of the LGBTQ community, nor were Plaintiffs ‘recognized community leaders’ as Defendants considered that term,” according to the suit.

Asheville rejected the plaintiffs’ applications in June. “At no time prior to rejecting Plaintiffs’ applications did Defendants communicate with Plaintiffs regarding their interest in the HRCA; nor did they seek any further information from the Plaintiffs regarding their qualifications to serve on the HRCA,” the complaint explained.

“Rather than appoint Plaintiffs to the HRCA, Defendants elected to leave the open positions vacant and re-advertise the openings in the hopes of obtaining applicants who met Defendants’ criteria,” according to the suit.

“At all relevant times, Defendants excluded white persons from serving on the HRCA unless they could qualify under … additional criteria,” the plaintiffs argued. “In effect, white applicants must demonstrate a ‘plus factor’ (age, homosexual/ transgender, disability status, public housing resident, or community leader) before being qualified for service.”

“Defendants conspired with each other to organize and administer the HRCA in a way that was discriminatory on the basis of race and ethnicity,” the complaint argued. “At all relevant times, Defendants were, and continue to be, aware that its organization and administration of the HRCA which discriminated and will continue to discriminate against applicants on the basis of race and ethnicity was and continues to be a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and also a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

“They never asked me a thing,” said plaintiff John Miall, in a news release from the Asheville-based group WNC Citizens for Equality. “They just took one look at my skin color and rejected me. I have a lot to offer, but that doesn’t matter, I guess.” 

Miall is a “lifelong resident” of Asheville, according to PLF’s news release. He spent nearly 30 years working for the city. His service included work as Asheville’s director of risk management.  “He secured many historic firsts for the city’s health and benefits plans, and although John is now retired, his passion for public service has never diminished,” PLF explained.

“He felt his decades of municipal experience and continued service to his community would be a natural fit for the HRCA,” according to the release. “Nevertheless, when he applied for one of the vacant seats, Asheville passed on his application because of his race and readvertised the open positions.”

Asheville filed a motion on Sept. 14 to dismiss the lawsuit. City officials disputed the plaintiffs’ argument that they were rejected from the group because of their race.

“[A]ll five of the Plaintiffs’ applications for appointment to the Human Relations Commission of Asheville … are still pending with the City,” according to the motion. “Applicants for advisory boards, like HRCA, are expressly told at the time of their applications that they will remain listed as active applicants for consideration for appointment for a period of one year after the date of their application.”

“It is anticipated that the City Council for the City of Asheville will fill the current vacancies on the HRCA at its meeting on October 10, 2023,” the motion continued.

Asheville officials emphasized the rules changes related to the commission’s composition. “The City Ordinance pertaining to the composition of the HRCA, Section 2-185.25, was heavily modified on two occasions, first in 2022 to remove any minimum level of diversity among the HRCA’s membership, and again in 2023 to reduce the number of HRCA members from 15 to 9,” the city argued. “None of the Plaintiffs ever applied for appointment to the HRCA prior to the passing of the 2022 and 2023 revisions to Section 2-185.25 of the City Code.”