‘Civil rights’ refers to those rights that allow a citizen to fully participate in civic society. The struggle for civil rights is the struggle to achieve equality of opportunity for all, regardless of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark law that outlawed segregation in schools and public places. Originally intended to aid African Americans in obtaining equal rights, the bill was later amended to protect women and other minorities. Perhaps the most well-known section of the Civil Rights Act is Title VII, which prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. This has also been supplemented with legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, disability, and pregnancy.

Forty years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the United States has done much to erase legal discrimination, but the legacy of racial inequality has yet to be erased. From protecting the rights of Native Americans to fighting for the right of gays and lesbians, the struggle for civil rights in the 21st century has grown to include a more diverse America and a greater variety of issues.

Although current law prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, and disability, no federal law protects employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It remains legal in 29 states to refuse to hire or promote, or to demote or fire someone based on sexual orientation, and in 33 states, the same goes for gender identity. A May 2011 Center for American Progress poll reported that 73% of Americans feel gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people deserve protection against workplace discrimination. As of September 2012, 440 (88%) of the Fortune 500 companies had implemented non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, and 285 (57%) had policies that include gender identity.

Reform Jewish Values

Judaism teaches that respect for the fundamental rights of others is each person’s duty to God. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). As Reform Jews, we are also guided by the basic belief that all human beings are created b’tselem Elohim (in the Divine image). As it says in Genesis 1:27, “And God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.” Each of us, created in God’s image, has a unique talent, with which we can contribute to the high moral purpose of tikkun olam, the repair of our world. Excluding anyone from our community lessens our chance of achieving this goal of a more perfect world.

As Jews, we are intimately acquainted with the effects of bigotry. Our ancestors knew both the continuing indignities of second-class citizenship and the constant fear of xenophobic violence. Our history teaches us that discrimination against any members of a community threatens the security of the entire community.

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) has long supported equal rights for all people. In 1950, the movement declared its dedication to pursuing equality by affirming that “discriminations because of race, color or creed are a violation of the will of God and of the principle of equal liberty to all so basic to the American philosophy.”

In 1977, the URJ explicitly resolved to support equal rights for LBGT people, saying, “Homosexual persons are entitled to equal protection under the law. We oppose discriminating against homosexuals in areas of opportunity, including employment and housing.” Since then, the URJ, Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), and National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) have passed many additional resolutions on equal rights for LBGT people.

Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center, testified at the House Education and Labor Committee hearing on ENDA in September 2009, and explicitly stated “…support for ENDA rooted in biblical text alone is insufficient justification for public policy that applies to Americans of all faiths and no faith. We also believe this legislation to be a wise and measured civil rights bill that addresses the scourge of employment discrimination and upholds the values on which our nation was founded, equality and justice chief among them.”

Legislative Update

The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA)  (A4226/S195A) was introduced by Senator Dan Squadron and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried. GENDA would amend New York law to add gender identity and expression as a protected class in the state’s human rights and hate crimes laws, prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and other areas, and providing enhanced penalties for bias-motivated crimes. In 2003, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), which amended New York law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, was signed into law after being introduced in the legislature since the 1970s.

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