A federal appeals court has revived a lawsuit that accuses the Alabama Legislature of racially discriminating against the city of Birmingham by preventing the majority-black city from setting its own minimum wage within the city limits.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a judge's decision to dismiss the lawsuit. The court says "plaintiffs have stated a plausible claim that the Minimum Wage Act had the purpose and effect of depriving Birmingham's black citizens equal economic opportunities on the basis of race."
Birmingham had been poised to become the first Southern city to raise the minimum hourly wage after the city council approved an increase to $10.10 per hour in 2015. But before it was implemented, the Alabama Legislature swiftly passed a law requiring a uniform state minimum wage, effectively nullifying the planned increase.
Fast food workers and civil rights groups sued, arguing the law was "tainted with racial animus" since it was pushed by white suburban Republican legislators in the majority-white Alabama Legislature and disproportionately affected black workers in the majority black city.
Supporters of a uniform minimum wage say the city initiative would stall economic development and the state should not have a patchwork of differing minimum wage laws.
In an at-times strongly worded opinion, the appellate court says the judge was wrong to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that plaintiffs didn't have the "clearest proof" of racial motivation.
"Today, racism is no longer pledged from the portico of the capitol or exclaimed from the floor of the constitutional convention; it hides, abashed, cloaked beneath ostensibly neutral laws and legitimate bases, steering government power toward no less invidious ends," the opinion states.
Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, one of the group's behind the lawsuit, says this decision means "Birmingham's minimum-wage workers will get another chance to win higher wages."
"We fought hard to win our pay raise, and Birmingham workers deserve to have our day in court to show that the state of Alabama was wrong to take away our raise," plaintiff Antoin Adams said in a statement.
A spokesman for Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall says the office is reviewing the decision and offered no immediate comment.
The court only revived the racial discrimination claim. The court ruled the judge was correct to dismiss other claims in the suit.