Civil and Human Rights

A Term to Remember

The Supreme Court gave us a historic year for liberty and equality

The Supreme Court has given us a term to remember. Defying the view that it’s entirely hostile to civil rights, the Court ruled time and again for the protection of equality.


The equality cases cut across a wide range of constitutional and statutory provisions, from the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clause to a whole host of major federal civil rights laws enacted by Congress, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But what’s striking is the number of major rulings taking a broad view of the legal command of equality. In case after case, the justices have applied the text of constitutional and statutory provisions guaranteeing equality to require just that.


This June, we have repeatedly seen the justices live up to the core constitutional principles at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, one of three constitutional amendments designed to provide the nation the ”new birth of freedom” that Lincoln promised at Gettysburg and commit our nation to the principle of liberty and equality of all. The Fourteenth Amendment wrote into the Constitution a sweeping guarantee of substantive fundamental rights and equality under the law and gave Congress broad powers to ensure that these constitutional promises were actually enjoyed by all persons regardless of race. Just as celebrations of the 150th anniversary of these “Second Founding” Amendments are getting underway, the Supreme Court has given us resounding affirmation of our Constitution’s promise of liberty and equality for all.


That’s most apparent in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s 5-4 ruling in Obergefell, which held unconstitutional state laws that deny the freedom to marry to same-sex couples. Rather than pick or choose between constitutional principles of liberty or equality, Kennedy resoundingly reaffirmed the broad protections of each, stressing, “Each concept—liberty and equal protection—leads to a strong understanding of the other.” Kennedy affirmed that the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of liberty and equality for all prohibit the government from taking a fundamental away from a disfavored minority, writing that “it demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of Nation’s society.” Emphasizing all the ways that marriage helps ensure “nobility and dignity to all persons,” Kennedy wrote that same-sex couples “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them at right.” At its core, Kennedy’s majority opinion is a stunning demonstration that the Fourteenth Amendment’s interlocking protections of substantive fundamental rights and equality grant freedom to all and prevent majorities from oppressing minorities by depriving them of core aspects of liberty. It is sure to be remembered as one of the most important statements about the Constitution’s protection of equal liberty ever penned.    


In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts claimed that the majority’s ruling “has nothing to do with” the Constitution, likening the Court’s ruling protecting the right to marry for all to now-discredited rulings that gave corporations the right to challenge economic regulation that they disliked and turned a blind eye to the government interest in preventing the exploitation of workers trying to make a better life.

The dissent’s crabbed constitutional analysis missed that ensuring equal liberty was at the very heart of the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections, designed to help ensure that African Americans, enslaved for centuries, could enjoy their new status as equal citizens. The Fourteenth Amendment’s broad text, as the majority properly recognized, extends to all persons and “promises liberty to all within its reach” as Kennedy’s opening line explained.


Marriage equality is the blockbuster ruling of the term, but it does not stand alone. This term, in a host of big rulings interpreting the scope of federal civil right laws, the Supreme Court has handed down rulings reaffirming protections against law and policies that produce an unjustified discriminatory impact on racial minorities and made it easier for pregnant women as well as religious minorities to sue for job discrimination. In each of these cases, the justices interpreted federal civil rights laws to serve the intended purpose of treating individuals with equal dignity and respect.


Just a day before announcing the Court’s marriage equality ruling, Kennedy wrote the Court’s 5-4 opinion in the Texas Department of Housing v. Inclusive Communities Project case, holding that the Fair Housing Act, like other federal civil rights law, allows an individual to go to court to challenge state laws and policies that result in a denial of equal opportunity to racial minorities. Rejecting Texas’s invitation to gut the Fair Housing Act, Kennedy’s opinion held that the act’s broadly worded guarantees of housing opportunity “permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment.” The statute’s broad mandate for racial equality, Kennedy reminded, had a “continuing role” to play “in moving the Nation’s toward a more integrated society.” In the wake of recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, this is a resounding reaffirmation that federal civil rights laws must be broadly interpreted to help realize the Constitution’s promise of equality for all and redress our nation’s long history of slavery, racial segregation, and oppression.


This term also saw major rulings reading the nation’s employment discrimination laws to protect individuals from being singled out for discrimination. In Young v. UPS, in a 6-3 ruling, the justices gave a broad interpretation to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, holding that an employer may not enforce a policy that “treats pregnant workers less favorably than it treats nonpregnant workers similar in their ability or inability to work.” Making clear that pregnant women cannot be treated as marginal workers, Young holds that Pregnancy Discrimination Act means what it says: discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is gender discrimination. Likewise, in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, the Court refused to rewrite federal employment discrimination laws to make it easier for employers to deny job opportunities to religious minorities. As Justice Antonin Scalia explained for a seven-member majority, “religious practice is one of the protected characteristics that cannot be accorded disparate treatment and must be accommodated.”


Nearly 150 years ago, our nation redeemed the Constitution from the sin of slavery, guaranteeing liberty and equality under the law to all persons, and giving to Congress sweeping new constitutional authority to help realize our Constitution’s promise of equal citizenship stature for all Americans. This term at the Supreme Court, the justices reaffirmed the fundamental constitutional truths at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, and of the civil rights laws passed to realize its goals, that demand true equality.

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