It’s the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act . . . and Discrimination Persists

By Kathy Greenier, Reproductive Freedom Project Director

Fifty years ago today, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. The landmark legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in the workplace and public accommodations (such as restaurants, hotels, and places for entertainment), ended unequal application of voter registration requirements, and prohibited segregation in public schools. The Civil Rights Act was instrumental in moving us closer toward true equal protection of the laws. But, as the U.S. Supreme Court reminded us this week, we still have work to do!

Monday’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby illustrates why the battle for equality is not over. The Court said that closely-held corporations (which include massive, private, for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby and its 23,000 employees) can use their owner’s religious beliefs to deny their employees a benefit, no co-pay birth control coverage, which they are guaranteed by law to receive. The case conjured up memories of a time when people were refused service at hotels and lunch counters because of the color of their skin or the God they worshiped. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Hobby Lobby reminded us, of a 1968 case about the owner of a barbecue restaurant chain in South Carolina who “refused to serve black patrons based on his religious beliefs opposing racial integration.” The majority opinion in Hobby Lobby argues that their ruling only denies women equal access to preventive health care offered to other employees, as if less sweeping discrimination is a comfort.

We may think that blatant discrimination is in our past, but as we said on Monday, Hobby Lobby further emboldens those who wish to use religion as a reason to discriminate in their businesses and their professional practices. Not unlike those who used religion to defend slavery, to deny women the right to vote, and to oppose integration, there is a movement underway in Virginia to grant legal protections to service providers, businesses, and professionals who want to deny services to LGBT Virginians.

A few days ago, we outlined the dangerous path Virginia is on towards so called “conscience clause” exceptions that justify discrimination under the veil of religion. Currently, Virginia law allows hospitals and health care professionals to refuse to offer abortion, even to save the life of a woman; state-funded adoption and foster care agencies to refuse to serve prospective parents or needy children (like LGBT parents); and genetic counselors to deny services to anyone, if doing so would conflict with religious or moral beliefs. As a result, unprotected groups in Virginia, like our LGBT community, now face new forms of discrimination (well, sadly it’s more accurate to say recycled forms of discrimination aimed at a new target of intolerance).

We all have the right to our religious beliefs, but religious freedom does not include the right to impose our beliefs on others. In ruling otherwise on Monday, the Court simply got it wrong. Monday’s decision will only fuel efforts to pass more discriminatory legislation.

Just as the 1964 Civil Rights Act was the most significant turning point in anti-discrimination policy at that time, Hobby Lobby must serve as a turning point and a wake-up call for all who strive to defend and promote equality. It’s time to draw a line in the sand.

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