PHOENIX – Since opening in 2003, Sunny’s Hair and Wigs in Mesa, Arizona, has developed a diverse clientele that includes many people who have lost their hair while undergoing chemotherapy battling cancer.

Owner Lisa Memberr’s customers come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, represented by the black, brown and white skin tones of the mannequins in her store that display wigs that range from blond to black.

“My customer base is very diverse. I not only have Caucasians, I have African Americans, I have Asians, I have Latino Americans,” Memberr said.

Memberr, who is African American, was surprised when her store was targeted by the 23-year-old founder of an anti-mask group. Ethan Schmidt confronts area businesses that require customers to wear masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and he claims he is the victim of discrimination.

In a video Schmidt posted on his Instagram page, he repeatedly refuses the store manager’s request to put on a mask even after being told the requirement is to protect customers undergoing chemo treatment.

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Schmidt tells the manager he does not wear masks because he has a “medical and religious exemption” and threatens to ruin the store’s business by posting its name, phone, number and address on the internet.

“OK, well, you guys are going to get blasted all over the internet. You are going to be getting a bunch of calls here soon,” Schmidt says in the video.

Since Schmidt posted the video, which has been viewed more than 600 times, Sunny’s Hair and Wigs has received numerous harassing phone calls, some laced with expletives and bigoted language. Memberr reported the calls to the police.

“This is America. Fight for your freedom, or we will shut down your (expletive) business. We are not Muslims. You don’t make people wear face masks,” a female caller said in a voicemail Memberr shared with The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Another caller told a store employee he called from Massachusetts after watching Schmidt’s video and sharing it “with everyone I know.”

“I’m a citizen calling on the behalf of a video I saw of you violating another fellow citizen’s medical, religious and constitutional rights,” the caller said.

When the store employee asked the caller what religious rights he referred to, the caller said, “Christianity.” The employee responded, “I’m a Christian.”

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t be violating … the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” the caller said.

In an interview, Schmidt said he believes the store discriminated against his religion and medical condition. He said he is a Christian. He declined to disclose his medical condition.

Schmidt said he is the founder of the Anti-maskers Club, one of numerous groups that have popped up on the internet. He said he has posted “hundreds” of videos of himself doing the same thing at other businesses.

“People need to respect my constitutional rights, my freedom of religion,” Schmidt said. “This is new territory, and it’s called mass discrimination. It’s no different than saying, ‘Oh, you’re Black, you can’t come in my store.’”

Legal experts said the argument does not hold water.

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“This argument that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 means that individuals have a religious or medical exemption to business mask mandates is specious. It is fully specious,” said Jennifer Piatt, a research scholar at Arizona State University’s Center for Public Health Law and Policy and a senior attorney with the Network for Public Health Law’s Western Region Office.

Businesses that continue to require customers to wear masks have become easier targets for protests as authorities lift mask mandates.

“If a large portion of businesses are not requiring masks and some smaller portions of businesses are requiring masks, I could see how that might provide a little bit of exposure for these businesses to those kinds of actions,” Piatt said.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Title 2 of the act prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, national origin and other protected classes in “places of accommodation” such as movie theaters, hotels, restaurants and other businesses, Piatt said.

“So you could not put a sign out saying no person of this religion is allowed,” Piatt said. “That is fully barred by Title 2.”

But that is not what is happening when businesses require customers to wear masks, Piatt said.

“Businesses are instituting a neutral and generally applicable requirement that applies to everybody who is seeking a service at this place of business,” Piatt said. “They are not doing anything discriminatory. They are not discriminating against anybody on the basis of religion.”

Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of religion, race, national origin and other protected classes, Piatt said.

That section states that reasonable accommodations must be provided to people with different religious beliefs, Piatt said.

Anti-mask groups are “cherry picking” the provision from Title 7 about reasonable accommodations and wrongly applying it to Title 2, Piatt said.

On March 25, Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order that essentially allows businesses to no longer follow mask mandates. The order gives businesses the option to continue to require customers to wear masks and to refuse service to people who refuse to comply with their policies.

On May 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines saying fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks in most indoor settings, unless businesses require them.

Following the CDC guidance, Mesa revised its policy May 24, making mask wearing optional at all city-owned public buildings.

Memberr said she kept the policy in place at her store to protect customers undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

“A sign on our door explains that we have customers whose health is compromised, and we try and provide a healthy environment for them,” Memberr said.

Infected people who don’t wear masks can pass the coronavirus to people whose immune systems are compromised, such as people undergoing cancer treatment or who may be unvaccinated for other reasons, said Julia Raifman, an assistant professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University’s School of Public Health.

Vaccines against COVID-19 are less effective for people who are immunocompromised, Raifman said.

Raifman oversees a database project that tracks policies states implemented in response to the pandemic.

“I absolutely think federal and state policies play a really important role in shaping attitudes towards policies,” Raifman said. “We see a lot of anecdotal evidence that businesses and employees don’t feel supported in making the decisions that are healthiest for them personally or for their communities without federal guidance and without state guidance on masks.”

Memberr said she’s trying to cope with the anti-masker harassment her business continues to receive.

“They kept insisting that they were going to shut down my business and not in such nice terms,” she said.

Memberr said the phone calls have taken a toll on her and her staff. Her manager has had trouble sleeping, and an employee who was insulted started crying. Memberr postponed a trip to visit relatives because she did not want to leave her staff to deal with the harassment on their own.

“Emotionally, and even psychologically, it has really placed a heavy load and a burden on us unnecessarily,” Memberr said. “There needs to be a stop to this, and it is unfortunate that it has been allowed to reach this level.”

Follow Daniel Gonzalez on Twitter: @azdangonzalez.

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