THE BLOG

Liberal Hypocrisy on Religious Freedom?

04/07/2015 01:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

Recently some in the media have been focused on the travails of two Heartland Red State Republican governors -- Mike Pence of Indiana and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas -- in dealing with the provisions of "Religious Freedom Act" legislation passed by their respective legislatures.

Conservative talk radio hosts bemoan the loss of individual religious freedom if the laws are walked back, while liberals point to what they claim would be government-sanctioned (or at least tolerated) discrimination, especially against gays.

Haven't we been through all of this before -- 50-plus years ago in the context of restaurants that refused to serve Blacks? Discrimination in America is ugly whenever and wherever it occurs; it is hardly a manifestation of what Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels" of our nature. Both governors did the right thing in seeking modifications to the legislation that make clear that discrimination would, in fact, be banned.

As this national outcry played out, I read with considerable interest an article by Martin Filler in the April 2, 2015, issue of The New York Review of Books. The article is entitled "New York: Conspicuous Construction", and it is an essay-review of an exhibit held from October 2013 to June 2014 at New York City's Skyscraper Museum. The exhibit (and this review) dealt with the recent trend in the city of super-high skyscrapers that offer super-expensive apartments to super-rich individuals. Mr. Filler singles out the condominium towers that are planed or under construction at 225 West 57th Street, 157 West 57th Street, 111 West 57th Street, 53 West 53rd Street, and 432 Park Avenue.

These buildings are very tall, very skinny, and not terribly distinguished architecturally. They are also, as noted, fabulously expensive. The Nordstrom Tower (225 West 57th Street) will, according to Filler, become the tallest residential building in New York City at a height of 1,775 feet. One57 (157 West 57th Street) also distinguished itself by having the most expensive condominium ever sold in New York City: a duplex apartment at One57 sold late last year for $100,471,452.77.

Mr. Filler explains that most of these new, super-expensive buildings are structured to sell as condominiums rather than as co-ops. This distinction is important, because to purchase a condominium, all you need is the money. To purchase a co-op, you need both money and standing, that is to say, approval by the building's co-op board. Getting admitted into a famous old-money luxury apartment building like 740 Park Avenue requires both cash and class. Mr. Filler never uses these terms, but it is clear that he is talking nouveau riche versus old money.

Mr. Filler also mentions two slightly older buildings that served as "financial prototypes for today's ultra-luxury towers," namely the 2000-2003 Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle and the 2005-2008 building at 15 Central Park West. And then we stumble across the following remarkable sentence in his essay:

These condominiums were specifically designed to attract an emergent class of plutocrats who might have difficulty buying into Manhattan's most exclusive cooperative apartment buildings, whose boards of directors, unaccountable to antidiscrimination laws, routinely blackballed Jews, blacks, gays, single women, show business performers, or anyone less than respectable.

When you reread that sentence, bear in mind that the borough of Manhattan is undoubtedly the epicenter of perhaps the bluest of Blue States. Some Midwest pizza parlor is put out of business because an employee hypothetically suggests that, if asked, they might not prepare pizzas for delivery at a gay wedding, but in midtown Manhattan wealthy co-op boards "routinely" discriminate against whomever they want with impunity. Double standard?

If I had millions to blow (foolishly) on such cooperative real estate, I'd welcome living down the hall from, let's say, Lady Gaga. I like her music (less so her attire), and as long as she and her band didn't practice at night, what's the problem? After all, she's a perfectionist and a solid paragon of the American work ethic. She also has a great story to tell, and New Yorkers love such stories. Would she be welcomed or rejected at 740 Park Avenue?

The Lady Gaga example is not entirely fanciful. The French Ambassador to the United States (now the French Ambassador to the United Nations) was declined approval to reside in a co-op at River House, purportedly on the grounds that as an ambassador, he would have to host too many parties that might disturb the occupants' tranquility.

If this "routine" blackballing is still occurring in the heart of the liberal enclave of Manhattan, where is the outrage? Where are the protesters? Where are those inflatable rodents that sometimes appear in front of office buildings? New York's mayor is a self-described progressive. Will he continue to look the other way at this travesty or do something about it immediately?

And what about New York's former United States Senator, Hillary Clinton? What will she have to say about these practices, some of which may be sanctioned -- at least tacitly -- by some of her wealthy New York supporters who live in some of these buildings? Will she do the right thing and call for an end to "routine" discrimination in the heart of New York City?

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Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation--United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.