The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act "properly provides" that no business should be able to discriminate against minorities, Republican U.S. Senate nominee Rand Paul said Thursday, bringing greater clarity to his position on a controversial issue.
Paul's statement, provided to the Herald-Leader, goes beyond what he told the newspaper in response to a questionnaire two weeks ago.
In that statement, Paul condemned discrimination and said businesses should not engage in such conduct, but he did not answer the question of whether businesses should be allowed to discriminate.
The question has dogged Paul in his race against Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway since the day after he won the Republican primary.
While answering questions that day on National Public Radio and MSNBC, Paul made statements that many people took to mean he thought the 1964 federal law infringed on property rights by barring discrimination at private businesses.
When the Herald-Leader sought clarification Thursday on whether Paul thinks private businesses should be barred from refusing service to minorities, he released this statement through his campaign manager:
"Yes, I believe that the1964 Civil Rights Act properly provides that no business should be able to discriminate. I have said repeatedly that I abhor discrimination, that it was a stain upon our nation, and that the situation required the remedy of legislation to end the problem."
Paul's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, said Paul had said the same thing publicly before, but he did not provide a specific example.
In an earlier, written answer to the newspaper on the same question, Paul said: "Discrimination is wrong, and I do not think private businesses, individuals or the government should discriminate."
Three other candidates were very clear in their initial responses on whether private businesses should be allowed to discriminate against minorities.
"No," Conway said. "My opponent's ugly opposition to fundamental provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — prohibiting discrimination by private businesses — has no place in our society."
"Absolutely not," said 6th District U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, a Democrat. "The Supreme Court has spoken strongly on this matter, and it is settled. We have come so far since the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, we shouldn't move backward."
Chandler's Republican opponent, Lexington lawyer Andy Barr, said, "Absolutely not. I fully support the Civil Rights Act's prohibition on racial discrimination."
Social-justice activists had said they were concerned that Paul, in his first response, did not say directly that businesses should not be allowed to discriminate.
Saying businesses should not discriminate is not the same as saying they should not be allowed to do so, several said.
"You should not do child labor versus you cannot" would be a similar concept, said Richard Mitchell, a longtime board member of the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice.
Racism persists in America, and some businesses would bar minority customers if allowed, said Reginald Thomas, former chairman of the Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice, and current vice chairman of the Fayette County Democratic Party.
"We saw what our society was like 50 years ago when there was not that kind of prohibition," Thomas said.
Mitchell said he thinks Paul's subsequent statement shows he agrees the civil rights law is legitimate.
"I think the guy wants to be elected," he said.
Controversy has smoldered — and at times flared — during the general election over Paul's stance on discrimination by businesses.
Paul said in a MSNBC interview May 19 that he abhorred racism and that he was "absolutely in favor" of the parts of the law that bar discrimination by government entities.
But he also said that one part of the act "deals with private institutions, and had I been around, I would've tried to modify that."
Paul did not say yes or no that day when pressed on whether private businesses should be allowed to refuse service to African-Americans or others. Instead, he gave an analogy about free speech.
"Should we limit racists from speaking?" Paul said. "I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way, in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that's one of the things freedom requires ... ."
Two days later, Paul clarified that he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act if he were in the U.S. Senate at the time.
Paul's comments on MSNBC were consistent with a 2002 letter he wrote about housing laws, in which he said private entities should not be barred from discriminating.
"Decisions concerning private property and associations should in a free society be unhindered," Paul wrote. "A free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination — even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin."
Paul's comments in May caused such a furor that the Republican-controlled state Senate felt compelled to pass a resolution in support of the federal Civil Rights Act, 46 years after it was passed.
The issue has come up several times since.
On Monday, for instance, a Democratic county party officer who called in during a televised debate between Paul and Conway alleged that Paul thinks "it would be up to the lunch counter owners to determine who might be served."
The question raised memories of an ugly time in the South when African-Americans were refused service at privately owned establishments and were beaten or arrested for trying to integrate them.
However, Paul insisted during the debate that his position on the Civil Rights Act has been misconstrued and that he had never said he believed in anything remotely resembling segregated lunch counters.
Thomas, former chair of the Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice, which helps people with complaints of discrimination, said he takes Paul at his word that he is not a racist.
But not everyone is so honestly motivated, he and others said.
William Cofield of Frankfort, president of the Kentucky chapter of the NAACP, recalled Lester Maddox, who closed his Atlanta restaurant in the mid-1960s rather than serve African-Americans — reportedly wielding an ax handle at one point to turn away activists — and later won a term as governor of Georgia.
"There would be other Lester Maddoxes around" without the Civil Rights Act, Cofield said.
Thomas said he has heard an argument that pressure from good people would prevent discrimination by business owners, but pointed out that didn't hold true in the South for a long time before the 1964 law.
"What's changed about human nature in the last 50 years?" he said.