Background on Civil Rights

The civil rights category encompasses the following issues:

    Freedom of Religion

  • Hobby Lobby: In the 2016 election "freedom of religion" has come to mean "the right of business owners to apply their religious choices to employees." In the landmark 2014 case known as "Hobby Lobby," the Supreme Court allowed a private company to deny contraceptives to female employees under the company health plan, because the owners had a religious objection to contraception. The underlying law, the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), had already been declared unconstitutional in another 1997 Supreme Court case, but RFRA is still applied in some situations. Supporters of "religious liberties" often claim the right to not serve homosexuals, as in the case of a bakery declining to produce a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage.

  • ENDA: At issue in the 2016 election is which situations business owners' religious choices should apply: Can they object to selling products or services to gay customers? Can they object to hiring gay employees? Even though the Supreme Court ruling was about religious objections to contraception, the case will apply to other issues, especially gay rights. The conflicting law is ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which disallows barring employment due to being gay.

    Women’s Rights

  • Equal Pay for Equal Work: Addresses discriminatory salary differences that exist between certain groups. The Fair Pay Act of 1999 would provide equal wages and benefits for work of equivalent value. Since that act did not pass, nor have equivalent bills through 2014, women can legally still be paid less than men for the same work.

  • ‘Glass Ceiling’: Term was popularized in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article describing the invisible barriers (usually prejudice) that women and minorities face as they move up the corporate hierarchy.

  • Domestic Violence: At the heart of the Domestic Violence Act of 1995 is the protection order. It names the person who is abusive and states what behavior is illegal under the order. The Family Law Act 1996 provides for a single set of civil remedies to deal with domestic violence.

    Minority Rights

  • Hate Crimes: Congress defines as a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim because of the actual or perceived race, color, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation of that person.

  • Affirmative Action: Minority applicants are preferentially hired to make up for past discrimination. The equivalent negative term is ‘Reverse Discrimination’. Candidates discuss whether ‘preference’ implies a fixed ‘quota’.

  • Racial Profiling: Also known as ‘Driving While Black’. Law enforcement practice of using race to decide which motorists to stop.

  • Redlining: Practice where banks draw lines around certain low income and minority neighborhoods. The banks then refuse to lend to those neighborhoods.

  • Bilingual education: Government requirement that U.S. public schools teach children in their native languages. Since 1974, all schools that accept federal funding must provide special language programs.

    Disabled Rights

  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) & Handicapped Access (see Health Care)

  • Mental Illness Discrimination (see Health Care)

    Religious Rights

  • School Prayer (see Education)

  • Posting Ten Commandments in public places (see Principles & Values)

  • The flag desecration amendment is considered a proxy issue for free speech (if you oppose the amendment) or a proxy issue for patriotism (if you support the amendment). A flag-desecration law was introduced in every Congress from 1995 to 2006; it passed the House in each session, and failed to pass the Senate by only one vote in 2005. A flag-desecration bill has been sponsored in both the House and Senate (without a vote) in every Congress from 2007 to 2013.

    The PATRIOT Act

  • The PATRIOT Act is a new topic in our VoteMatch quiz as of the 2008 election. It encompasses an enormous number of controversial civil rights issues, from habeas corpus restrictions through the right to privacy. Defense-related aspects of the PATRIOT Act are covered under outr Homeland Security section.

  • The USA PATRIOT Act was first passed in Oct. 2001 as a response to 9/11. It was reauthorized by Congress in 2005. The title is an acronym for ‘Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.’

  • Habeas corpus: The ‘Writ of habeas corpus’ means all people have the right to not be held indefinitely by a government. The Latin term means ‘you have the body’, i.e., that when the government is holding a person, that person can demand a hearing on why they are being held. Habeas corpus is older than the Constitution -- it was part of English Common Law back to the 12th century, and forms a key basis of the legal underpinning of the US Constitution. Critics of the PATRIOT Act claim that Pres. Bush has suspended habeas corpus illegally (by holding prisoners in Guantanamo, e.g.); the Consitution specifies that habeas can only be suspended for civil war or insurrection.

  • FISA: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 set up a system of ‘FISA Courts’ which would decide when it was ok for the federal government to spy on people -- by granting surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the US. Opponents claim that the FISA courts are sufficient safeguards and that Pres. Bush is conducting ‘warrantless surveillance’ by avoiding FISA.

  • Secret wiretapping: The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 established restrictions on unauthorized government access to private electronic communications, such as email or phone calls. The PATRIOT Act weakened those restrictions, which opponents say allows the government to secretly record email and phone conversations by US citizens. An additional controversy comes from requiring electronic service providers, such as phone companies and email providers, to supply the federal government with customer records without telling the customers.

  • Secret Renditions: Since 9/11, the CIA has flying captured terrorist suspects from one country to another for detention and interrogation, a practice known as ‘rendition’. For several years, the rendition flights were secret, and denied by the CIA and the Bush Administration. In Nov. 2007, under mounting evidence about the use of European airfields for this purpose, the CIA and Bush Administration admitted the use of secret renditions, including the explicit involvement of several European governments. The ultimate destination of rendition flights is usually Guantanamo prison. The Bush Administration justifies the practice as necessary for the War on Terror.

  • Guantanamo: Guantanamo Bay is a US enclave in Cuba, run by the US military (nicknamed ‘Gitmo’). Beginning in late 2001, the US military has used the base to hold prisoners ca ptured in Afghanistan and Iraq. The prisoners are considered ‘enemy combatants’ and hence not subject to US law, and since they are outside the United States, their legal status has always been ambiguous. In early 2008, the first military tribunals were held to determine these prisoners' status.

  • Waterboarding: The US Constitution forbids torture, and the 2008 candidates argue about whether waterboarding constitutes torture, and whether torture is allowed in Guantanamo or other prisons outside the US. Waterboarding simulates drowning, and has been used since the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century as a form of coercing prisoner testimony. The political controversy around waterboarding was the key topic of Attorney General Michael Mukasey's November 2007 confirmation hearings, which led to an official admission that the US had indeed used the method.

      Also see:

    • NEA, National Endowment for the Arts.

    • ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union.

    • Issues Library from

      Amendment I to the US Constitution

      Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.... (1791)

      Article 9 Clause 2 of the US Constitution

      The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

        Other Civil Rights Issues

      • Flag-Burning Amendment

      • Confederate Flag in Public Places

      • Gambling, Prostitution, Pornography, & ‘victimless crimes’

      • Funding for NEA

      • Right to Privacy (see Technology)

    Gay Rights


  • "GLBT" refers to gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender rights. At the core of the "T" component is what pro-gay activists is a person's "gender identity," which means that a person defines their own gender rather than their biology at birth. Using the term GLBT implies support for expanding gay rights to transgendered individuals, who are currently not covered by most laws protecting homosexuals from discrimination. In 32 states, there is no protection from being fired for simply being transgendered.


  • The Clinton administration in 1993 enacted a “don’t ask/don’t tell” (DADT) policy for gays in the military. Under the DADT rules, gays could be discharged from the military for homosexual contact and for stating their sexual orientation, but the military is not allowed to ask them their orientation.

  • The DADT policy was repealed in 2010; since then, gays may serve openly in the military. Hence gay and lesbian people may now openly serve in the US military. Since 1993, the DADT policy held that homosexuals may serve as long as they do not announce their homosexuality ("Don't Tell"), but also that the military may not investigate their homosexuality ("Don't Ask").

  • The policy banning open homosexuals serving in the military was repealed on Sept. 20, 2011. Hence gay and lesbian people may now openly serve in the US military.

Family and Relationships
  • Adoption: 19 states allow gay and lesbian couples to adopt children in a complex and expensive two-step process, in which one parent first adopts and then the second can petition for joint rights.
  • Ceremonial Marriages: Same Sex Marriages may be officiated by church officials, or anyone else, but ceremonial marriages in and of themselves involve no civil laws and carry no legal benefits or responsibilities.
  • Domestic Partnership Registration: is a means by which some cities allow opposite- and same-sex couples to go on public record as a non-married couple. The major benefit is used to establish legal responsibility for debts after a relationship ends.
  • Domestic Partnership Affidavit: Many private employers and municipalities offer domestic partner benefits to their workers, based on signing a legal affidavit that defines an economic relationship.

    Civil Unions
  • In Dec. 1999, the Hawaii Supreme Court reversed a 1996 ruling, and defined marriage as between different sex couples.
  • In April 2000, the Vermont House of Representatives gave final approval to same-sex marriages. Gays and lesbians may join in "civil unions," which are no expected to be recognized by other states and will not entitle the partners to federal benefits. The Vermont Supreme Court had ruled in December that gay and lesbian couples denied the right to marry were suffering from unconstitutional discrimination.
  • In June 2000, the Supreme Court let stand a New Jersey ruling that allowed the Boy Scouts to ban gay scoutmasters.
  • In July 2000, Vermont began offering a separate form of marriage, conferring about 300 spousal rights to same sex couples.
  • The Civil Union license is obtained from town clerks. There is a $20 fee. The Unions are "certified" either by justices of the peace, judge, or willing member of the clergy. Civil Union couples also have the right to dissolve their unions through a "dissolution" process in Family Court.

    Civil Unions Benefits
  • Definitions: Use of State laws that confer benefits or rights to people based on their marital or family status, such as family landowner rights to hunt and fish, or definitions of family farmers.
  • Adoption: Entitled to all the protections and benefits available when adopting. Same-sex couples already are allowed to adopt, but laws would reflect that those couples would now be treated as spouses.
  • Compensation: Use of victims' compensation and workers' compensation related to spouses.
  • Discrimination: Use of laws prohibiting discrimination based on marital status.
  • Health Care: Able to make medical decisions for incapacitated partner. Able to visit hospitals visitation and be notified of a partner's condition.
  • Insurance: State employees are treated as spouses for insurance or continuing care contracts.
  • Lawsuits: Able to sue for wrongful death, the emotional distress caused by a partner's death or injury, and loss of consortium caused by death or injury.
  • Property: Entitled to joint title, transfer from one to the other on death, and property transfer tax benefits.
  • Probate: Use probate law and procedures.
  • State Tax: Treated as an economic unit.
  • Testimony: Not be compelled to testify against one another.

    Federal rights NOT Covered by Civil Unions
  • Immigration Rights: Cannot have a non-U.S. spouse become a full citizen.
  • Social Security: Cannot collect benefits upon death of a spouse.
  • Federal Taxes: Cannot file jointly as a married couple

    Same-sex Marriage
  • Goodridge v. Department of Public Health: The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in Nov. 2003 that cities must issue same-sex marriage licenses. The first such license was issues in Cambridge Massachusetts on May 17, 2004.
  • 1913 Law: A Massachusetts law from 1913, targeting miscegeny or mixed-race marriage, required that residents of other states be legally marriageable in their home state, in order to qualify in Massachusetts. This law has prevented same-sex couples from elsewhere marrying in Massachusetts. In Feb. 2007, Rhode Island became the first state to accept same-sex marriage licenses from Massachusetts (despite that same-sex couples cannot marry in Rhode Island itself).
  • California's Supreme Court enabled same-sex marriage in a ruling on May 15, 2008, overturning a statewide ban, citing a 1948 reversal of a ban on interracial marriages (but later overturned the law).
  • Connecticut's Supreme Court enabled same-sex marriage in a ruling on Oct. 10, 2008, replacing CT's civil union law.
  • State DOMA: Largely as a result of the Massachusetts law, 29 states banned same-sex marriage. The laws are known as 'Defense of Marriage Amendments'. Several 2004 & 2008 ballot initiatives brought out enough voters to not only pass state DOMA laws, but to influence the Congressional and/or presidential election. The issue retains high interest in the 2012 presidential race.
  • Federal DOMA: refers to the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress in 1996, which defined marriage as consisting of one man and one woman (in other words, barring same-sex marriage). DOMA applies to all federal benefits and taxes, but not necessarily to state benefits and taxes.
  • In May 2012, a federal appeals court in Boston ruled that DOMA unconstitutionally denies benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples. The ruling supports the Obama administration's 2011 announcement that it considered the law unconstitutional and no longer would defend it.
  • On March 27, 2013, the Supreme Court heard US v. Windsor on overturning DOMA, and on June 26, 2013, overturned key components of DOMA as unconstitutional. DOMA was declared to violate the “equal protection” clause, and establishes that same-sex married couples are entitled to equal federal benefits as all married couples.
  • Domestic Partnership: 11 states have some sort of civil union or domestic partnership law for same-sex couples.
  • As of the 2012 election, 13 states allowed same-sex civil unions or had some similar legislation, and 29 states had laws defining marriage as one-man-one-woman. By the 2014 election, the number of states allowing same-sex marriage had risen to 34 states. Several more states have legalized same-sex marriage but it has not yet taken effect (but will by the 2016 election). With a majority of states having legalized same-sex marriage, at issue now is federal law, which includes numerous aspects of federal benefits.
  • Rep. Barney Frank on July 8, 2012 became the first incumbent member of Congress to marry a same-sex partner. Frank is not running for re-election in Nov. 2012, and announced in the 1980s that he is gay.

    Societal Issues
  • Boy Scouts: In June 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America can bar homosexuals from serving as troop leaders.
  • Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Clinton administration in 1993 enacted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Under the existing rules, gays can be discharged from the military for homosexual contact and for stating their sexual orientation, but the military is not allowed to ask them their orientation. (see Homeland Security)

Click here for Amazon books on Civil Rights.
Pro gay marriage
Pro traditional marriage
Pro affirmative action
Anti reverse discrimination
Other candidates on Civil Rights: Background on other issues:
2020 Presidential Democratic Primary Candidates:
State Rep.Stacey Abrams (D-GA)
V.P.Joe Biden (D-DE)
Mayor Mike Bloomberg (I-NYC)
Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-IN)
Sen.Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Secy.Julian Castro (D-TX)
Rep.John Delaney (D-MD)
Rep.Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)
Sen.Kamala Harris (D-CA)
Sen.Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
Gov.Deval Patrick (D-MA)
Sen.Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
Adm.Joe Sestak (D-PA)
CEO Tom Steyer (D-CA)
Sen.Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

2020 GOP and Independent Candidates:
CEO Don Blankenship (C-WV)
Gov.Larry Hogan (R-MD)
Gov.John Kasich (R-OH)
V.P.Mike Pence (R-IN)
Gov.Mark Sanford (R-SC)
CEO Howard Schultz (I-WA)
Pres.Donald Trump (R-NY)
Gov.Jesse Ventura (I-MN)
V.C.Arvin Vohra (L-MD)
Rep.Joe Walsh (R-IL)
Gov.Bill Weld (L-MA)

2020 Withdrawn Candidates:
Mayor Mike Bloomberg (I-NYC)
Sen.Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)
Gov.John Hickenlooper (D-CO)
Gov.Jay Inslee (D-WA)
Rep.Seth Moulton (D-MA)
Rep.Beto O`Rourke (D-TX)
Rep.Eric Swalwell (D-CA)
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