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South Dakota lawmaker: Let businesses 'turn away people of color,' later apologizes

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/6/2018 Dana Ferguson

Rep. Michael Clark © sdlegislature.gov Rep. Michael Clark SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A South Dakota lawmaker on Monday said businesses should be able to turn away customers based on race.

In a Facebook comment, state Rep. Michael Clark, a Hartford Republican, said business owners should have the final say in who they serve.

Clark later pulled the Facebook comment. And an hour after the Argus Leader published a story about the comment, he sent an email apology to a reporter.

The comment elicited outrage from constituents and calls from Democratic opponents for him to withdraw.

Clark's initial comment came in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's narrow decision Monday siding with a Colorado baker that refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple's wedding.

"He should have the opportunity to run his business the way he wants," Clark wrote. "If he wants to turn away people of color, then that('s) his choice."

Clark posted a story, and in the description celebrated the decision as a "win for freedom of speech and freedom of religion."

In response, others called into question the lawmaker's comments and pointed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. And they began sharing Clark's comments on other social media sites.

“You can’t turn away someone from your business because of their race, it was illegal yesterday, and it’s illegal today,” said Libby Skarin, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota.

Clark took down the post on Tuesday to re-write it, saying he'd "jumped in on it a little bit too fast."

In an interview with the Argus Leader, Clark said that business owners with strongly held beliefs should be able to turn away customers.

“If it’s truly his strongly based belief, he should be able to turn them away,” Clark said. “People shouldn’t be able to use their minority status to bully a business."

And if the community doesn't support a store or restaurant that bars customers for that reason or others, it will put them out of business.

"The vote of the dollar is very strong," he said.

An hour after an initial version of this story published online, Clark emailed an apology to an Argus Leader reporter. 

"I am apologizing for some of my Facebook comments," he wrote. "I would never advocate discriminating against people based on their color or race." 

Clark does not face a primary challenger and has filed petitions to run for re-election to represent District 9.

The state Democratic Party and Democrats set to run against him in November expressed concern about the remark and said it demonstrated he was unfit to hold his office.

“He doesn’t understand the rights of people he represents," said District 9 House candidate Toni Miller. "He is not qualified for the office he holds."

More: Why South Dakota primary voters didn't get their 'I voted' sticker

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More: From New Jersey to California, voters have their say in hotly contested primaries

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter: @bydanaferguson

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