In a world where civil rights are frequently denied individuals, the United States can feel some pride in the fact that the Civil Rights Act has reached its golden anniversary. The bill wasn’t even really supposed to be passed; then-president Lyndon B. Johnson, governing a nation that was mourning the still-recent death of beloved President John F. Kennedy, was publicly determined to push through the legislation that Kennedy was determined to see passed in his lifetime. Tragically, Kennedy would not live to see the bill come to fruition, but Johnson’s determination to push through the bill has meant a complete change in the American landscape, though in many cases, more needs to change even now.
While schools and businesses in the US have been desegregated for decades now, and racism appears to be on the decline in North America as a whole, civil rights issues continue to plague North American society. Certainly, the Civil Rights Act does not legally apply in Canada, but the principles of it are upheld in various other laws and human rights codes. The civil rights issues that were once so prevalent in the mid-20th century, though, have merely changed their appearance. Issues of religion, health and sexuality permeate North American society. Instead of people being denied basic rights as a result of their race, some sectors of society are pushing government officials to make it legal to deny business to those who identify as some part of the LGBT population. The reason identified for this exclusion is that serving the LGBT population would be offensive to their religious beliefs. This is no different than the discriminatory laws that were in place in the mid-20th century and prior to that.
There has been very limited success in trying to get these current discriminatory bills passed in the US; perhaps the most recent example of this sort of anti-gay legislation would be in Arizona, where the governor vetoed the passing of any sort of legislation earlier this year. There are, however, a number of states that have laws on the books that do not support homosexuality in varying degrees. For instance, although Alabama abolished sodomy laws back in 2003, it is still part of state law that when teaching about sexual education, it needs to be enforced from a public health perspective that homosexuality is not a lifestyle that is acceptable to the general public. The same instruction is given in Texas as well.
South Carolina forbids the discussion of sexual lifestyles that are different from heterosexuality, and in Louisiana, it states that there should be no discussion of homosexual activity during sex education classes. Louisiana’s law is perhaps not all that surprising, as sex education classes teach that abstinence should be adhered to and the state continues to ban same-sex marriage. It is therefore interesting that while the US quietly marks 50 years since the passing of the Civil Rights Act, that both in the US and in Canada there is still a lot of work to do as far as civil rights are concerned.
Civil rights are a tenuous topic of conversation on a good day, but as the US marks five decades since the passing of the Civil Rights Act, people should reflect on how, in many cases, very little has changed since the law’s passing. It is important to note that there are a number of grassroots organizations that work towards improving civil rights standings for various sectors of society, but more needs to be done at the state and federal levels. Enforcement of civil rights issues should not simply be a matter of North American or international governments jumping in to various countries when others find their civil rights trampled upon. North American governments should also look at improving their civil rights at home before they jump into other nations.
Opinion by Christina St-Jean