Fight for rights and liberty an ongoing struggle

Today marks the exact middle of the 2014 calendar year, since there are 182 days past and 182 ahead. It is Thurgood Marshall’s birthday and the day Nostradamus died. Yes, he saw it coming.

And it is, of course, the day that the Second Continental Congress voted to approve the resolution put forward by Richard Henry Lee, the second cousin of Robert E. Lee’s grandfather, that the American colonies dissolve their bonds with England to become free and independent states. Strangely, we celebrate our independence not today but on July 4, the day the wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved and it was signed by John Hancock.

But today is also the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson less than three hours after it was passed. It was not the first civil rights act Congress passed, nor the last, but it was the first to reject the argument that the Fourteenth Amendment doesn’t apply to businesses.

President John Kennedy hadn’t really wanted to introduce the legislation, but the horrible events of spring 1963 essentially forced him to do it. There would have been little chance of it passing, or even getting out of the House Rules Committee, had Kennedy not been killed that November.

While Kennedy had been inept at pushing legislation through Congress, his successor Lyndon Johnson was an absolute master at it, and he used his skill to promote Kennedy’s legacy. There may be a lot not to like about Johnson, but nobody was as relentless an arm twister as he was, or as experienced at bringing pressure on individual legislators. This is where subsequent presidents have all failed.

I am writing about this today because we have never resolved that fundamental civil rights issue. Does the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment apply to private businesses, or just to governments?

That was the key issue in 1964 because the Supreme Court was hearing an appeal from African American protestors who had been arrested in a segregated Baltimore restaurant. The conservative majority knew that, if they denied it, a civil rights act whose Title II outlawed segregation in “public accommodations,” like restaurants and stores, would be doomed.

However, one of the justices changed his mind and the court side-stepped the issue. The Civil Rights Act was popular in the north, and they rammed it down the throats of the south, which is still choking on it. The act is admittedly a blunt object that claims everyone is engaging in interstate commerce no matter what they are doing, but the advances in the quality of life Americans have enjoyed since then would have been unthinkable without it.

The act survived Supreme Court challenges in 1964, but possibly would not in the anti-regulation Roberts court of today, a court that doesn’t believe government has the right to “burden” businesses by requiring them to do anything they consider improper or that offends their religious convictions.

Anniversaries are a time to reflect. Should private businesses be allowed to discriminate against anyone whose nature or belief offends them in some way? Are voting rights protections obsolete and no longer required? Do someone’s religious beliefs exempt them from laws that benefit the public that does not share those beliefs?

We tend to think of things like civil rights and voting rights as decided and permanent, but of course they are not. Liberty is even more fragile than life. There is no reason to believe that because those rights were won by courageous people 50 years ago that they won’t have to be re-won tomorrow.

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