Civil rights battle rejoined

February 11, 2009

Excerpts from the new civil rights bill

In the afterglow of a historic inaugural, it's tempting to view the necessity of fighting for Civil Rights as an archaic call to arms.

But for progressives immersed in the mechanics of changing lives, it serves as a milestone, not a destination: While much has been accomplished, much needs to be done.

In Massachusetts, a new bill addressing equality, an Act to Restore Enforcement of Civil Rights, sponsored by Representative Byron Rushing and State Senator James Eldridge, was introduced in the state legislature last month. ACE is a founding member of a large and growing coalition of organizations supporting the bill because we believe it will help achieve environmental justice.

If passed, the bill would grant people the right to sue in state court if a state program or policy has a disparate impact based on race, color, national origin or gender. The bill would fill a void in Massachusetts civil rights laws.

The bill is also necessary because in 2001 Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the Court’s five to four majority opinion in its controversial ruling in the case of Alexander v. Sandoval. That decision overturned more than 30 years of precedent under Title VI of the landmark Civil Rights bill, signed into law in 1964, allowing people to sue if federal funds were used a way that resulted in disparate impact based on race, color, or national origin. Instead, people can only sue if they can prove intentional discrimination, a standard so difficult to prove in court that redressing Civil Rights violations is nearly impossible.

For more information on the Act to Restore Enforcement of Civil Rights, on how your organization can join the Coalition to Restore Civil Rights, or to learn how you can encourage your local senator and representative to support this critical legislation, please email ACE Legal Counsel Eugene Benson or call (617) 442-3343 x226.