Today marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Senate’s vote for cloture on the Civil Rights Act or 1964, ending a filibuster by the bill’s opponents that had lasted since March 30, 1964, the day debate opened on the Senate floor. On that morning fifty years ago, the Senate acted on President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration:
“We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”
Despite this formal end to legislative debate on civil rights, the American public continues the discussion on equality, and grapples daily with fundamental civil rights issues. According to a survey released in May by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 16 percent of Americans surveyed believe that small business owners have the right to refuse service to members of the LGBT community. Last week, Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission upheld a discrimination ruling against Denver cake shop owner Jack Phillips, who infamously refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2013. In response, Mr. Phillips has stated that he will cease his wedding cake business altogether.
Just as Mr. Phillips believes that it is his right to discriminate against same-sex couples, the Equal Rights Center has documented numerous cases of housing providers that discriminate against potential LGBT renters, and government contractors who participate in discriminatory hiring practices against LGBT individuals. Privately or publically, some believe they are within their rights – Constitutionally, religiously, or otherwise – when refusing to provide equal access to employment, housing, or access to public accommodations and government services for certain groups of people.
When individuals or companies believe they have a right to discriminate against a group of people, tackling and dealing with that entrenched bias becomes even more difficult. When this bias has a religious bent, the task borders on impossible. That same study from PRRI found that 10 percent of those surveyed believe that small business owners should have a right to refuse service to African Americans on religious grounds.
It is important to recognize, as a majority of Senators from both sides of the aisle did fifty years ago, that debate about some issues has a shelf-life. Hashing out issues, often for extended periods of time, is a hallmark of American democracy. But there comes a time when we must do all that we can to provide civil rights for all people, regardless of stalwart opposition from people who believe that discrimination is their right. In upholding the court decision against Mr. Phillips, Colorado Civil Rights Commission member Raju Haram stated decisively that, “I can believe anything I want, but if I’m going to do business here, I’d ought to not discriminate against people.”
As Minority Leader Everett Dirksen made the closing arguments for proponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said, “The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing in government, in education, and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied.”
Indeed, the period for debate about civil rights is over; it is now a matter of enforcing these rights equally for ALL people.