WASHINGTON — A major initiative aimed at setting aside a string of conservative judicial decisions and restoring the protections in the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act is drawing strong support from national Jewish organizations.
Seventeen Jewish groups — including the community’s leading women’s organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Reform and Conservative synagogue unions — have joined more than 160 organizations in supporting Fairness: The Civil Rights Act of 2004. Introduced earlier this month to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the bill is described by supporters as an effort to reinvigorate and bolster the landmark legislation, which they say has been eroded by 15 years-worth of Supreme Court rulings.
“This bill is about restoring the meaning” of civil rights statutes “to what Congress intended them to mean when it passed them,” said Julie Fernandez, senior policy analyst at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a Washington advocacy group that helped draft the new bill. The measure is meant to overturn what liberals describe as the Supreme Court’s “systematic effort to roll back important civil-rights protections,” Fernandez added.
“It is legislation that is urgently needed to remedy the balance of power, especially in the workplace, and provide protection to workers,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The bill, he added, will serve as a tool “to help focus attention on these issues in a political context.”
The bill was introduced simultaneously in the Senate and the House of Representatives two weeks ago by liberal Democratic legislators, who said that it represents the start of what will be a long-term effort to revive agitation for civil rights. “The struggle for civil rights is beyond one bill, one vote or one decision of a court, one presidential term or one act of Congress,” said Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and icon of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, during a Capitol Hill press conference. Lewis, a co-sponsor of the legislation, added: “This bill is just another chapter in that story to ensure that all Americans are free to pursue their dreams.”
Several Jewish activists in Washington described the bill and the accompanying public campaign as a vehicle for Democrats to turn civil rights into a rallying tool in an election year. But Fernandez said that is not the case. “We have been working on putting this bill together for about a year and a half,” she said. “We are not a partisan organization — neither [are] any of our partners.”
Besides, she said, to pass Congress, any civil-rights bill will need support from both parties. “We are not looking to stick it to anybody, but to try to build a bipartisan coalition around what we think are mainstream bipartisan issues,” Fernandez said. Still, she acknowledged that building a bipartisan coalition may be too ambitious a goal for an election year, adding that a long-term effort is required to bolster civil-rights protections.
The bill covers a wide range of topics, including employment discrimination, sexual harassment, veterans rights, legal fees, gender discrimination and protection for undocumented workers. Among other provisions, the measure prohibits any type of discrimination based on race, national origin, gender, disability or age by federally funded programs and activities, and eases the burden of proof on university students accusing their teachers of sexual harassment. The bill also seeks to overturn a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that state employees are not eligible to sue for damages related to charges of age discrimination.
In general, the legislation attempts to counter the court’s increasing tendency to grant lower levels of protection to government employees than workers in the private sector, Fernandez said.
Aside from its direct impact on the law, the bill will also serve as a positive rallying cry, Pelavin said.
“For so long, the civil rights agenda has been negative,” the Reform movement official said. “It has been opposing this or that or the other. Here is a chance for people who care about civil-rights issues to support something and push it affirmatively.”