by Remington A. Gregg, Legislative Counsel, Human Rights Campaign
*Noting the 50th anniversaries of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ACSblog is hosting a symposium including posts and interviews from some of the nation’s leading scholars and civil rights activists.
As we pause to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed into law, it is a perfect time to look at the many ways it paved the way for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Not only did passage pave the way for additional pieces of civil rights legislation, including Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, but it marked a sizeable shift in the use of the commerce clause. To LGBT movement, however, the Civil Rights Act marked the beginning of the LGBT community’s own fight for equality.
The long march toward LGBT equality gained momentum with Romer v. Evans in 1996, where the Supreme Court held that an amendment to the Colorado state constitution that would forbid the state or its subdivisions from extending legal protections to LGB people violated the Equal Protection Clause. In 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court ruled affirmatively for the first time on a due process claim brought by gay claimants that LGBT people “are entitled to respect for their private lives. The state cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime. Their right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government.” And last year’s critical decision in United States v. Windsor changed the whole landscape in the LGBT community’s access to important federal benefits. The Court held that Section 3 of the “Defense of Marriage Act,” which defined marriage as a “union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” for federal purposes, was an unconstitutional infringement on equal protection as applied to the federal government under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Now, LGBT couples have access to more than 1,100 rights, benefits, and obligations previously denied to them.
Each of these cases has served as a vital building block in the fight for equality. These successes have been paralleled with incredible legislative and administrative victories, including the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and an LGBT-inclusive Violence Against Women’s Act re-authorization. And yesterday, President Barack Obama signed an important executive order. First, it prohibits federal contractors from discriminating in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Second, it protects federal employees from discrimination on the basis of gender identity. (President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that provided protections with regard to sexual orientation.)