What Was the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
On June 15, 2020, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch sided with the Supreme Court’s liberal wing to deliver a historic ruling protecting LGBTQ rights. At the heart of the case was a line from Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which protects against workplace discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex or national origin." In an opinion authored by Gorsuch, the court declared that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is also discrimination based on sex and therefore illegal under the law.
How did a civil rights law from the ‘60s end up at the heart of one of the Supreme Court’s first rulings on LGBTQ rights in the 2020s? Surprisingly, the ruling was unintentionally made possible by a Southern opponent of desegregation who was trying to prevent equal rights for Black Americans. This is how it happened.
Following the end of the Civil War, the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments were passed to abolish slavery, make former slaves U.S. citizens and give them the right to vote respectively. However, in the decades that followed, numerous states, especially those in the South, worked to make sure that those rights couldn’t be acted upon. From literacy tests to grandfather clauses that kept anyone from voting whose grandfather couldn't also vote (i.e. former slaves), Black Americans were prevented from exercising the rights they had won. Acts of violence and terror also helped to keep them from fighting back.
The Struggle to Pass the Bill
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 that Congress and Johnson went on to pass had a number of provisions. It banned voter registration requirements, like literacy tests and poll taxes, as well as discrimination or segregation in public spaces involved in interstate commerce; trade unions, schools or employers who do business with the federal government or participate in interstate commerce; and public schools. It also banned discrimination in determining who can receive funds from federal assistance programs and more.
Success and Consequences
The passage of the bill was by no means the end of opposition, however. It was brought all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices confirmed it to be constitutional. Protests and violence from white supporters of segregation also broke out, and a slew of pro-segregation lawmakers were voted into office. Johnson, a Democrat, famously mused, "It is an important gain, but I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."
The Act’s Legacy Today
When Smith inserted the word "sex" into the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he didn’t intend on furthering women’s rights, let alone LGBTQ rights. In the words of Justice Gorsuch, however, "When the ex-press terms of a statute give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit."