Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb

PETITIONER: Shaare Tefila Congregation
LOCATION: Oglala Sioux Tribe

DOCKET NO.: 85-2156
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 481 US 615 (1987)
ARGUED: Feb 25, 1987
DECIDED: May 18, 1987

Deborah T. Garren - Argued the cause for the respondents
Patricia A. Brannan - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

After its Maryland synagogue was painted with anti-Semitic slogans and symbols, the Shaare Tefila Congregation brought a suit charging the white defendants with racially discriminatory interference with property rights under 42 U.S.C. Section 1982. The Maryland District Court dismissed the claims, maintaining that white-on-white violence was not racially discriminatory.


Did the white defendants exhibit racially motivated discrimination in violation of the federal statute?

Media for Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 25, 1987 in Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb

William H. Rehnquist:

We will hear argument first this morning in Number 85-2156, Shaare Tefila Congregation versus John William Cobb.

Mr. Brannan, you may proceed when you are ready.

Patricia A. Brannan:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case presents the issue, whether a complaint that alleges racially motivated discrimination and harassment against Jews may state a claim under Title 42 of the United States Code, Section 1982.

The complaint alleged that respondents' desecration of the synagogue of Shaare Tefila Congregation was racially motivated and hence covered by the statute.

The complaint further alleged that the facts that supported the allegation of racial motivation were principally the character, symbols and words that respondents themselves painted on the synagogue.

The complaint alleged that they painted the words,

"Dead Jew, Death to the Jew. "

They painted swastikas, and on a door the words,

"In, Take a Shower, Jew. "

They painted the garbled German words, "Toten Kamf Verband" next to a skull and crossbones.

The "Toten Kamf Verband" with the death head units of concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany, and the skull and crossbones was their symbol.

These words and symbols invoked Nazi ideology, and it was one of the principal tenets of Nazi ideology, both in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and '40s and among neo-Nazi groups in this country today that Jews are racially non-white and inferior to whites.

The complaint further alleged that respondents painted the words, "Ku Klux Kian", and the burning cross, the familiar symbol of the Kian.

Kian groups, like the Nazis, hold as one of their central tenets that Jews are racially distinct from whites and inferior.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals split on the issue as to whether this conduct stated a Section 1982 claim.

A majority affirmed the dismissal of the complaint, holding that because Jews are not racially distinct or non-white, this conduct does not state a 1982 claim.

But in dissent, Judge Wilkinson recognized that although Jews are not racially distinct from whites, when they suffer racially motivated deprivation of rights protected by the statute, they like any other group should be covered.

We, of course, agree that Jews are not racially distinct from whites.

We respectfully ask this Court to reverse the Fourth Circuit and to hold, consistent with its prior cases--

John Paul Stevens:

May I ask you a question about your last comment?

Do you think at the time the statute was passed that the people who voted for the statute thought that Jews were racially distinct or not?

Patricia A. Brannan:

--I believe that they did, under the common understanding of the word "race" at that time.

That issue has been briefed in greater detail, actually, in the St. Francis College case.

For our purposes, we don't believe that that even would matter.

That what really matters, if persons who discriminate against Jews, Arabs or other minorities now, who do that because they view them as racially distinct, that that conduct should be covered.

After all--

John Paul Stevens:

Maybe it should.

But you don't contend that at the time the statute was passed, that the authors of the statute might well have used the term "race" in a way that would have treated the Jews as a separate race?

Patricia A. Brannan:

--We believe that they did use that term at that--