Tea Party Favorite Rand Paul Under Fire for Criticizing Civil Rights Act

Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul scrambled to explain his criticism of the landmark U.S. Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination, saying he agrees with its goals but questions the federal government imposing its will on businesses.

The political novice and Kentucky candidate issued a statement Thursday amid the fallout from a series of interviews in which Paul said he would have opposed forcing businesses to integrate under the law.

Democrats seized on the comments to argue that Paul holds extremist views and shouldn't be the choice of voters for the U.S. Senate.

Enacted in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was landmark legislation that outlawed racial segregation in the schools, the workplace and in public facilities. It also banned unequal application of voter registration requirements.

"I support the Civil Rights Act because I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation," Paul said in the statement.

Paul added that the "federal government has far overreached in its power grabs," and cited President Obama's historic health care law. He also said the liberal establishment is desperate to keep him from being elected.

In his primary victory on Tuesday, Paul had strong support from members of the so-called Tea Party movement, which believes that government spending and influence should be curbed. Paul also had the backing of some key conservatives, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Democrats said they believed Paul's remarks were out of line even in conservative Kentucky.

Paul's Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, said in a statement that Paul has a "narrow political philosophy that has dangerous consequences for working families, veterans, students, the disabled and those without a voice in the halls of power."

And Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth called Paul's comments appalling and said "he has no place holding public office in Kentucky in the 21st century."

Paul had told The Louisville (Kentucky) Courier-Journal last month that while he supports anti-discrimination laws, he challenges imposing those rules on private businesses.

On Wednesday, he was asked about those comments in separate interviews with National Public Radio and MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show."

Paul told NPR said he is opposed to "institutional racism and I would've, had I'd been alive at the time, I think, had the courage to march with Martin Luther King to overturn institutional racism."

But Paul added: "I think a lot of things could be handled locally."

Hours after the NPR interview, Maddow pressed Paul about whether eateries should have been desegregated in the 1960s in the South.

Paul declined to give a yes or no answer. Instead, he said he doesn't believe in discrimination, suggested the issue was abstract and raised the idea of who decides whether customers can bring weapons into restaurants.

Asked whether he opposes part of the Civil Rights Act, Paul said if "you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says, 'Well no, we don't want to have guns in here.' The bar says, `We don't want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each other.' Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?"

Paul is an eye doctor who had never run for elective office before the Senate primary. He says he shares many of the libertarian views of his father, Republican Rep. Ron Paul, who represents a Texas district and was a presidential candidate in 2008.