Civil Rights for Minorities and Women
African Americans are not the only group of people who have faced overt discrimination. In the early years of the republic, Catholics and Jews were denied the right to vote in some states. The Irish, Jews, and other immigrants faced a long period of de facto discrimination in housing, educational opportunities, and employment. Nor does the civil rights struggle involve only racial minorities, as the status of the disabled, homosexuals, and women demonstrates.
As did African Americans, Hispanic Americans found that the best way to accomplish their goals lay in organizing. The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the United Farm Workers union, La Raza Unida, and the League of United Latin American Citizens have campaigned for increased voter registration and greater access to education. Hispanic Americans benefited directly from the 1975 amendments to the Voting Rights Act that required that election materials be made available in minority languages such as Spanish where justified by the number of minority voters. Immigration reform is also a pressing issue, particularly the rights of illegal immigrants and whether they will be able to become American citizens.
In the 1960s, Native Americans began organizing against long-standing neglect and discrimination. There was an important emphasis on overcoming stereotypes about Native Americans and recovering their heritage. The American Indian Movement (AIM) has been one of the most effective voices seeking to preserve Native American culture as well as raise the issues associated with land claims. Native Americans have used civil disobedience — the takeover of Alcatraz Island in 1969 and the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973 — to press their claims.
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applied the requirements of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to more than 40 million people. It covers those who are physically or mentally handicapped, including people with AIDS and former drug or alcohol abusers, and it guarantees protection in the areas of transportation, public accommodations, employment, and telephone services. This expansion of civil rights has recently come under fire because it often forces institutions to allocate disproportionate resources to a handful of people. The presence of a single disabled student, for example, can force a school to keep a full-time nurse on payroll or to make expensive changes in facilities and equipment. The statutory definition of "disabled" is rather loose, and people using the law for leverage sometimes do not seem to be what the sponsors had in mind when they originally wrote the legislation. The disabled evoke great sympathy among the general public, making elected officials unlikely to tamper with the rights that are now in place. The Supreme Court, however, has narrowed the scope of the ADA in recent years. In 2002, for example, the Court ruled that the law only covers impairments that affect a person's daily life, not whether a worker can perform a particular job. It also held that states cannot be sued under the ADA.
Equal rights have come more slowly for gay men and women. Since the 1980s, a growing number of states and municipalities enacted laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Under the Clinton administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, the military cannot ask about a serviceperson's sexual orientation, and gays in uniform must keep their homosexuality a secret and refrain from homosexual conduct. In 2003, the Supreme Court struck down state laws that made sodomy a crime, reversing an earlier decision.
A key civil rights issue is whether gay men and lesbian couples can marry. In 1996, Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act, which provided that states do not have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states despite the "full faith and credit" clause in the Constitution. Vermont became the first state in the Union to recognize civil unions that give gay and lesbian couples the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples; a small number of other states followed Vermont's lead. Although same-sex marriages were made legal in Massachusetts in 2004, they are banned in a number of states and some people support a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Until the 1860s, many states restricted or prevented women from owning property. A woman's right to vote was not constitutionally protected until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 included sex on the list of characteristics that could not be discriminated against (race, age, religion, and national origin are the others) that the door was opened for a concerted campaign against gender discrimination.
The National Organization for Women (NOW) is an important force in the women's movement. It has campaigned successfully for equal employment and pay and against sexual harassment. Although the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) failed ratification, the 1972 amendments to the Civil Rights Act denied federal funding to public and private institutions that discriminated against women and required equality of sports programs for men and women in schools.
In applying the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to women, the Supreme Court has used various standards to determine the constitutionality of laws perceived to be discriminating on the basis of sex. The rationality test, which maintains that a law is constitutional if a reasonable person believes there is a rational basis for it, is gradually giving way to the heightened scrutiny test and the strict scrutiny test. These put a higher burden of proof on the defendant to demonstrate that there is a "substantial" or "compelling" state interest behind the law or that it is not discriminatory. Under this approach, the Court struck down height and weight requirements that often prevented women from joining police or fire departments, and opened opportunities for women in what once were considered "nontraditional" jobs. Although white men continue to dominate American politics, women have made significant gains. The number of women holding elective office in all levels of government continues to increase. In 2006, Nancy Pelosi (D-California) became the first woman elected Speaker of the House. Affirmative action, sexual harassment, and equal pay for equal work remain important issues for women.