August 28, 2013

Civil rights in Minnesota: setting the national agenda?

Posted in Age, Color, Commission Membership, Creed, Disability, Discrimination, Gender / Sex, Marital Status, Minnesota Human Rights Act, National Origin, Public Assistance, Race, Religion, Sexual Orientation tagged , , , , at 1:24 pm by Tom Jacobson

“judged … by the content of their character.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s a cornerstone of our democracy that laws must change when they do not fit the needs of the majority. Today, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic I Have a Dream speech, is the perfect opportunity to reflect on how there may be no better example of that principle than the ongoing struggle for civil rights for all Americans.

When it comes to civil rights, Minnesotans have historically been trend setters, not followers (see 150 Years of Civil Rights in Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Human Rights). For example, Minnesotans bravely fought and died in the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, and efforts to protect the rights of  Jews and Native Americans date back to at least the 1930’s. Twenty years before Dr. King’s speech, Minnesota Governor Edward Thye created a commission to study discrimination and economic inequality. In 1946 Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey created the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, and two years later Minneapolis enacted the country’s first municipal fair employment law. The Minnesota State Act for Fair Employment Practices (which was the predecessor to the Minnesota Human Rights Act) pre-dated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by nine years. When that state law was passed, the Minnesota Legislature declared:

[T]he public policy of this state is to foster the employment of all individuals in this state in accordance with their fullest capacities, regardless of their race, color, creed, religion, or national origin, and to safeguard their rights to obtain and hold employment without discrimination. Such discrimination threatens the rights and privileges of the inhabitants of this state and menaces the institutions and foundations of democracy.

Since its initial passage, the MHRA has of course been amended several times to add sex, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, membership or activity in a local commission, disability, sexual orientation, and age to its list of protected classifications. Some of those characteristics are now also protected by federal law,

In June I had the privilege of leading off a morning of presentations at the tenth annual West Central Minnesota Employment Law Update. To put things into perspective, I noted how the law is always playing “catch up.” That is, laws are passed in response to societal change. I suggested that if you want a glimpse into what our laws might look like in the future, pay attention to societal trends now. Let me take that a step further; to envision our nation’s future civil rights landscape, take a look at Minnesota today. But don’t look through rose-colored glasses, for much work still needs to be done to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination that continue to threaten the rights and privileges of the inhabitants of this state and nation and menace the institutions and foundations of democracy.

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The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2013 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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