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Human rights

Past achievements and
current status in North America

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Human rights in North America:

In colonial North America, full and equal rights were historically restricted to a small minority. Over the centuries, the U.S. and Canada have moved towards a culture promoting "liberty and justice for all" persons.

Change has only happened gradually, and usually has had to overcome strong opposition. The rate of change has been much too fast for many people's comfort. Each change had to be fought for. Each was considered radical at the time. With the passage of time, these changes eventually became fully accepted as part of our culture. Few would wish to see them reversed. Only extremist groups today promote a return to:

bulletThe death penalty for sexually active homosexuals,
bulletThe legalization of human slavery,
bulletDenying women the right to vote and to run for office, and
bulletDenying loving, committed, inter-racial couples the right to marry.

In spite of changes in the law, individuals expressing racism, sexism, homophobia, 3 transphobia, 4 xenophobia, and other forms of hatred continue to oppress people at a person-to-person level.

North American civil rights milestones:

Some major American, and a few Canadian civil rights developments were:

bulletColonial times: Only white, heterosexual, cisgendered, 2 land-owning, male, Protestant Christians enjoyed a full set of civil rights.
bullet1791: The Bill of Rights, which are the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, theoretically eliminated religious discrimination, except for Native Americans. All white, free males were given the vote, independent of their financial status.
bullet1865: The civil war eliminated human slavery and gave some rights to African Americans, including -- to many for the first time -- the right to marry.
bullet1920: Women won the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Votes for women had been first seriously proposed in the U.S. during 1848. In 1929, women were first recognized as "persons" in Canada.

Due to an "oversight" in the constitution of Lower Canada (Quebec) between 1791 and 1849, some women in Quebec, Canada who met property ownership criteria could vote -- the first women in North America with that right. Due largely to strong opposition by the Roman Catholic Church, Quebec was also the last jurisdiction in North America to allow women to vote. Full voting equality was finally won in 1940.
bullet1950s - 1960s: African Americans and their supporters used sit-ins and other types of demonstrations to protest racial segregation, denial of the vote, and lack of opportunities. They achieved some successes.
bullet1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, and national origin by federal and state governments. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and gender identity are still legal in most areas of the U.S, and remain so today.
bullet1967: Loving, committed inter-racial couples were allowed to marry anywhere in the U.S. after a landmark civil rights ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in an ironically named case "Loving v. Virginia."
bullet1968: The Fair Housing Act outlawed racial segregation in schools, public places, and employment.
bullet1969: The gay rights movement was triggered by the Stonewall riots in New York's City's Greenwich Village in reaction to one too many unprovoked police attacks.
bullet1978: Many guarantees of religious rights were given to American Natives with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
bullet2003: Private consensual sexual activity between persons of the same sex was legalized throughout the U.S. by the Lawrence v. Texas ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. This overturned laws in 16 states that criminalized same-sex sexual behavior.

Current civil rights conflicts:

At the present time, the main struggles for equal protections and rights involve:

bulletPersons with a homosexual or bisexual orientation. They continue to advance towards equality with heterosexuals. Polls have shown that this civil rights conflict is the greatest concern to religious and social conservatives, even more important than restricting abortion access. Under debate is whether persons of all sexual orientations (heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual) be given:
bulletEqual protections against discrimination in employment.
bulletEqual protections in accommodation.
bulletEqual protection from hate crimes.
bulletEqual access to marriage, its rights and protections.
bullettransgender and transsexual persons. This struggle is in its infancy.
bulletWomen. Although they have made major progress over the past decade, some religious groups -- notably fundamentalist Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Churches and Orthodox Jewish traditions, routinely reject women for ordination because of their sex. They are also excluded from some assignments in the military.

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Who are the main advocates in civil rights conflicts?

In the past, civil rights conflicts have been mainly between:

bulletAn oppressed group, and their supporters, vs.
bulletAnother group.

For example:

bulletIn the 19th century conflict was between African American slaves and their supporters vs whites over whether slavery should be abolished.
bulletIn the 20th century between women and their supporters vs. men over whether the all adults should be allowed to vote.

Modern-day conflicts are typically between religious and social conservatives, vs a broad range of other groups. A good illustration of this was seen at the first hearing by the Hawaiian House Judiciary Committee on 2009-FEB-05 concerning bill HB 444. That bill would create a partial type of marriage equity in the state. It would allow loving, committed same-sex couples to enter into civil unions and receive all of state benefits and rights that are a special privilege restricted to married opposite-sex couples.

Those opposing the bill at the hearing were:

bulletGary Okino, a councilperson and apparently an evangelical Christian.
bulletA representative of the Roman Catholic church.
bulletA representative from Christian Voice of Hawaii, a conservative Christian advocacy group.
bulletRepresentatives from various departments of Brigham Young University, which is associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. LDS and the Mormons).
bulletIndividuals, making personal statements. All are believed to be religious conservatives.

Those supporting the bill and partial marriage equity included representatives from:

bulletThe Unitarian Universalist Church of Hawaii, the state Interfaith Council, American Friends of Hawaii (Quakers), and a rabbi of the Reform Judaism tradition;
bulletLabor, public education, civil rights, and university student groups;
bulletThe Democratic Party of Hawaii, The National Association of Social Workers, Planned Parenthood;
bulletThree LGBT support groups;
bullet Filipinos for Affirmative Action; the Women's Center University of Hawaii, Manoa; the League of Women Voters, Hawaii;
bulletIndividuals, all believed to be secularists, religious moderates or progressives.
bulletA tearful young lesbian woman of unknown faith whose sister is getting married in the near future. She begged the committee members:

"Please, please don't make me leave my home and family and move somewhere else so I can have the same rights as my sister. Do you really want the children of this island to have to leave? Don't we matter, too? Please don't force me to leave my home."

References and footnotes:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, (UDHR), United Nations, at: http://un.org/
  2. A cisgendered person is one whose genetic gender matches their perceived gender (a.k.a. gender identity). transgender persons are generally regarded as those having a mismatch between their genetic gender and their perceived gender.
  3. The term "homophobia" has multiple meanings. On this website we define it as  engaging in an action aimed at denigrating, or restricting the human rights of, persons who have a homosexual orientation and/or who engages in homosexual behavior. Examples of actions are
    bulletgay-bashing,
    bulletharassment of gays, lesbians and bisexuals
    bulletPassing or maintaining laws that deprive homosexuals of job protection, accommodation protection, hate-crimes protection, and
    bulletPassing or maintaining laws that deprive loving, committed same-sex couples the right to marry.
  4. The term "transphobia" also has multiple meanings. On this website we define it as as engaging in an action aimed at denigrating, or restricting the human rights of, persons who are transgender. Examples of transphobic actions are
    bullettrans-bashing -- physical assaults and sometimes murder,
    bulletharassment of transgender persons or transsexuals, and
    bulletPassing or maintaining laws that deprive transgender persons or transsexuals of job protection, accommodation protection, and hate-crimes protection.
  5. Paraphrased from Forum 18 at: www.forum18.org.

Site navigation: Home pageHuman rights > here

Copyright © 1995 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-FEB-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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