Civil Rights
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The Topic
Civil rights refers to the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled, and to the laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, creed, gender, age, sexual orientation, and many other criteria.
The Context
New York is the most diverse city on the planet, home to people of every race, nationality, language group, religion, sex, and sexual orientation, and to some of the world's premiere human rights groups. There have been intense intergroup conflicts throughout the city's history, from the Draft Riots of 1863 to the Crown Heights riots of 1992. But more amazing is how well such varied peoples have gotten along for hundreds of years.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia created a Committee on Unity after some race riots in 1943, in order "to make New York City a place where people of all races and religions may work and live side by side in harmony and have mutual respect for each other, and where democracy is a living reality." Eventually, the city and state governments passed laws against discrimination and established agencies to enforce them.

The Reporter
Andy Humm is a former member of the city's Human Rights Commission, a reporter for LGNY, co-host of "Gay USA" on the Gay Cable Network, and former editor of Social Policy magazine.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Civil Rights.

by Andy Humm


(August '01) When New York was predominately Protestant in the mid-nineteenth century, overt anti-Catholic persecution was common. Thomas Nast cartoons then often reflected a breathtaking anti-Catholic bias. Irish Catholics were drawn as monkeys; bishops wore miters that were really crocodiles. But even the Know-Nothing Party's attacks on Roman Catholics nationwide were tempered somewhat in New York City by the concentration of Catholics here and the formidable leadership of Archbishop John Hughes.

Today, 43.4 percent of city residents are Catholic, with Baptists (10.7 percent) and Jews (10.9 percent) in a tie for a distant second. The city has a Catholic mayor, Rudy Giuliani. The Speaker of the Council, Peter Vallone, is Catholic, and attends mass daily. The state's last four governors (Wilson, Carey, Cuomo, and Pataki) have been Catholic. There was a Catholic governor, Thomas Dongan, way, way back in 1684, who passed the colony's first religious liberty law. Cardinal John O'Connor was presented the Congressional Gold Medal just before his death last year, and was honored posthumously last month at St. Patrick's Cathedral by George W. Bush in his first appearance in New York as President, when most of the city's powerful turned out in force.

But in the last decade, Catholics, particularly those who adhere strictly to their faith, are coming forward to say that anti-Catholicism is back. "It seems to me that Catholics are welcome in society until they start talking about their beliefs, particularly on life issues and human sexuality," said Claudia McDonnell, a self-described orthodox Catholic who works in Manhattan.

"My faith is regularly denigrated in the mainstream press," said Austin Ruse, President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, citing the New York Times and Washington Post in particular (charges the papers vigorously deny). "On a personal level, in social situations when you talk about your faith you get the curling of the lip and questioned about how you could believe these things. Someone actually moved away from me with a look of horror."

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, based in the city and with a high profile nationwide over the last decade under its president, William Donahue, states on its website that "anti-Catholicism is more virulent and pervasive than ever before in American history." The League has been able to enlist such prominent advisory board members as conservative columnist Linda Chavez and philanthropist and former Domino Pizza CEO Thomas Monaghan.

According to Patrick Scully of the League, it goes beyond social snubs, citing examples such as "annual events at the Brooklyn Museum" like Chris Ofili's picture of "The Holy Virgin Mary" using elephant dung and "Yo Mama's Last Supper" featuring the artist, Renee Cox, as a nude Jesus. These works famously drew the ire of Mayor Giuliani and sparked huge debates over public funding of the arts. "There is a sense of unfairness and double standard," Scully said. "You would not see a display ridiculing the gay community or African Americans or Jewish people."

The majority of the League's complaints are against media portrayals of Catholics, from TV shows like "Ally McBeal" to movies such as Kevin Smith's "Dogma." But Scully is also concerned about legislation in Albany that, he said, "would have required Catholic institutions to violate their core beliefs by providing medical coverage for contraceptive procedures that the Church is against." Indeed, this is one of the few high-profile issues that Cardinal Edward Egan has taken up in his first year as Archbishop of New York.

Scully also cites the desecration of a series of statues outside Catholic churches last year, particularly in Brooklyn.

Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which works to educate United Nations delegates and the public about the "family as the fundamental unit of society" (among other issues), believes that there is "an anti-Catholic elite in the United States Senate." He said that given the way Attorney General John Ashcroft's religious beliefs were treated during his Senate confirmation hearings, "I feel that as a believing, practicing Catholic, I need not apply for certain government positions."

But Philip Nobile, a New York journalist at and a former editor of the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal with a pontifical degree from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, disagrees. "Catholic bashing is a very misused term because you do not bash Catholics when you criticize certain beliefs. Beliefs are fair game.

"Anti-Catholicism is not in the same league as anti-Semitism," said Nobile, a non-practicing Catholic. "Catholics in New York are now the 'overdog' and have no minority status whatsoever." It is some Catholic organizations, indeed, who have been accused of doing the bashing, against gay people, who are excluded from marching in the St. Patrick's Day parade in Manhattan.

Catholics are, like people of all religions, protected by city, state, and federal human rights laws. Randolph Wills, deputy commissioner of the City Commission on Human Rights, said that though there are some 1,100 complaints of discrimination they receive annually, there have been a total of just 27 complaints since 1995 where the person has indicated that his or her Catholicism was at least part of the reason for suffering bias -- 22 employment cases, three concerning housing, and two in public accommodation. Creed as a whole makes up three percent of their complaints.

Scully said that the League handles numerous complaints from Catholic individuals. "In New York, we helped some people who were in rehab who were not being allowed to go to mass and had trouble getting to reconciliation confession," he said. They contacted the state and it was rectified. "I remain convinced," he said, "that anti-Catholicism remains the only acceptable bigotry."

Recommended Links:

  • New York City Commission on Human Rights - 40 Rector Street, New York, NY 10006; (212) 306-7500 The Commission enforces the City's Human Rights Law which prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, color, age, national origin, alienage orcitizenship status, gender (including sexual harassment), sexual orientation, status as a victim of domestic violence, disability (including HIV/AIDS relatedconditions), lawful occupation, arrest or conviction record, marital status, family status, and retaliation. The Law prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, as well as bias-related harassment.
  • New York State Division of Human Rights - One Fordham Plaza, 4th Floor, Bronx, New York 10458; (718) 741-8400 The State Division of Human Rights serves as an alternative to the court system for resolving discrimination claims--in employment, in places of public accommodation, resort or amusement, in educational institutions, in commercial space and in credit transactions and to take other actions against discrimination. The agency is responsible for developing civil rights legislation and policy for the State of New York, and for promoting awaren essof civil rights issues and remedies.
  • American Civil Liberties Union - 125 Broad St., New York, NY 10004 "The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is our nation's guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States."
  • Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund - 99 Hudson Street, 12th floor, New York, NY 10013; (212) 966-5932 is "the first organization on the east coast to defend and promote the legal rights of Asian Americans through litigation, legal advocacy, community education, leadership development and the position of free legal assistance to low-income and immigrant Asian Americans."
  • Human Rights Watch - 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor, New York, NY 10118-3299 USA; (212) 290-4700 "Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice."
  • Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund - 120 Wall Street, Suite 1500, New York, NY 10005-3904; (212) 809-8585 The nation's oldest and largest legal organization working for the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.
  • NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund - 99 Hudson St., New York, NY 10013; (212) 219-1900 "Committed to staying on the cutting edge of the movement for racial justice."
  • National Organization for Women/NYC - 150 W. 28th St., #304, New York, NY 10001; (212) 627-9895 NOW/NYC "works towards equality for women with a focus on several key issues: battling racism and violence against women, guaranteeing reproductive rights, advocating lesbian and bisexual rights, fighting for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and generally working towards economic, educational, and political equity. The chapter provides educational outreach and takes part in political lobbying, zap actions and demonstrations in response to various social situations. The Service Fund of NOW-NYC also offers referrals, support groups, and clinics for women in need."
  • New York Civil Liberties Union - 125 Broad St., New York, NY 10004; (212) 344-3005 The NYCLU is "a statewide organization dedicated to the protection and enhancement of New Yorkers' civil liberties as enumerated in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York."
  • Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund - 99 Hudson St., 4th floor, New York, NY 10013; (212) 219-3360 "Through litigation, policy analysis and education, the Puerto Rican Lega lDefense and Education Fund works to secure, promote and protect the civil and human rights of the Puerto Rican and wider Latino community."

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