What are the civil rights issues of today?
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, the impact was felt across the nation. More than simply a document written in legal language, the ruling was a catalyst that sparked a movement: the civil rights movement.
In Brown, the court decided that the “separate but equal” doctrine was inherently unequal; it violated the 14th Amendment’s promise of “equal protection of the laws.” The country’s public schools, some of which made a practice of separating black students from white students, were officially required to desegregate. This inspired citizens around the nation to rally against all forms of institutionalized racial discrimination – from voting rights to equal access to public services to workplace rights.
In the decades that followed, significant progress was made, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – a law banning all forms of racial discrimination – and the appointment of the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, in 1967.
And the movement didn’t stop there. What are some contemporary civil rights issues?
Women’s Struggle for Equality
When women were granted the right to vote by the 19th Amendment in 1920, they weren’t suddenly elevated to a level playing field with men. Inequality and discrimination continued, particularly in the workplace. After Brown, the women’s movement turned to the 14th Amendment in its fight for equal rights. The Supreme Court case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in 2006 brought into focus the wage gap – the statistical 80 cents on each dollar that women are paid now compared to men. Although the Supreme Court ruled against Lilly Ledbetter (based on its interpretation of the statue of limitations to file a lawsuit), Congress later passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, giving women more leeway to fight discriminatory pay.
Gay Rights, from ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ to Marriage
Discrimination based on sexual orientation is also prevalent today. Ironically, one of the laws viewed as discriminatory – the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy – was intended as a progressive act. Signed into law by President Bill Clinton, it allowed gays to serve in the military. But they could do so only if they did not divulge their sexual orientation, and their commanding officers were prevented from asking about it. As it played out, the law was criticized for forcing gay military personnel to conceal their sexual identities, effectively living a lie to serve their country. In 2010, a federal judge ruled it violated the First Amendment right of free speech because gays could not openly discuss their sexual orientation and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. This month, repeal of the policy took effect, but the battle for equality continues on other fronts. The right of same-sex couples to marry has been an intense debate for the last decade and a half. Advocates say the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause guarantees gays and lesbians the right to marry. The Obama administration has said it will no longer enforce the Defense of Marriage Act – the 1996 law defining marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman – meaning the issue is entirely in the hands of the states. Some states, such as Vermont, Iowa, New York and Massachusetts, have passed laws allowing gay marriage. Other states allow civil unions for same-sex couples, and others still have passed outright bans – most recently California’s voter-approved referendum Proposition 8, which is expected to be heard by the Supreme Court.
Americans with Disabilities
The right to equal facilities and equal access for Americans with disabilities is not based in the Constitution but is a federal mandate. Before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, it wasn’t required that public buildings, schools and workplaces have curb cut-outs and ramps for people in wheelchairs. A key problem with the ADA, however, was that many people had a very narrow view of “disabilities” – wheelchairs – and the law in practice wound up limiting the rights of other people it was trying to protect. In 2008, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act, broadening the language of the law to make it clear that the word “disability” refers to any impairment, physical or mental, that limits the activities a person is able to participate in.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the country became more suspicious of and resistant to immigrants. The issue of illegal immigration became a hot topic in the media, as well as in political debate, and states began passing tough laws targeting illegal immigrants. But even if someone is in the United States illegally, the Supreme Court ruled over a century ago in Yick Wo v. Hopkins that noncitizens are also covered by the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
What do you think?
What are the civil rights issues of today? What can the federal government do to better protect the rights of women? Should the federal government be involved in protecting the rights of gay citizens? Should the Americans with Disabilities Act be broadened further? Should illegal immigrants receive equal protection of our laws? Join the discussion!
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