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City Strengthens Human Rights Law

by Andy Humm, Oct 06, 2005
 

When Mayor Mike Bloomberg approved the Local Civil Rights Restoration Act on October 3 despite some unspecified concerns, he signed into law the most extensive strengthening of the city’s human rights law since 1991.

I wrote extensively about this bill and its provisions in June 2005. Last month, the measure -- Intro 22-A -- passed the City Council by a vote of 42-3 with one abstention. Councilmember Gale Brewer, a West Side Democrat, said that the “farthest-reaching” provision of the law is that it must “be interpreted independently of its federal and state counterparts.” This means that New York City cannot enact protections weaker than those in federal and state law -- but it can institute stronger rights measures.

The bill was backed by a coalition of 40 groups, but Bloomberg singled out the support of District Council 37, the municipal employees’ union, as important and stood with its president, Lillian Roberts, at the bill signing. Leonard Polletta, assistant general counsel of District Council 37, many of whose members are people of color, said, “We have hundreds of thousands of members daily affected by civil rights laws. Those laws have to be broadly interpreted.”

Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, who was instrumental in the drafting of this bill and the 1991 reforms, said this measure "gets our Human Rights Law out from under the shadow of its federal and state counterparts.” He said that many areas of the law that have been restrictive will now have to be reexamined by judges, including "the doctrine that throws a woman out of court whenever a judge decides she hasn't been harassed enough." The city Human Rights Law may also help some persons with disabilities seeking to rent or buy an apartment, Gurian said. Some federal courts have resisted letting disabled persons use cosigners to guarantee their rent or mortgage. The new act, according to Gurian, will fill that gap.

“New York City has now done all in its power to provide the entire bundle of rights that are protected in housing, employment and public accommodations to domestic partners,” Gurian said.

Some legal experts see this new law as a powerful tool to compel private employers to provide domestic partner benefits. While other experts think federal insurance laws under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act -- or ERISA -- may prevent that, many .private insurance plans have nothing to do with ERISA and, under the new city law, employers would be hard-pressed to deny domestic partner benefits if they provide spousal benefits. (For more on the law’s effect on domestic partner benefits, see my article in Gay City News.)

Irum Taqi, legislative director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that for years the city’s human rights law has been “compromised” by federal and state court rulings. “Intro 22-A sends a strong message that New York City--a city that prides itself on its diversity and openness--aims to preserve the strength of its local civil rights laws.”

TRAILBLAZERS IN CIVIL RIGHTS

Civil rights and liberties battles continue in New York over everything from riding bicycles en masse to the right of same-sex couples to marry (see Links in the News). But over the last several months, five of the most eminent leaders of the civil rights movement who lived here or made some of their most important contributions here have passed away.

Constance Baker Motley, 84, civil rights lawyer: Constance Baker Motley made history in 1964 as the first African American to hold a New York State Senate seat in 1964, in 1965 as the first to be Manhattan borough president , and again in 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson made her the first black woman to be appointed a federal judge. She died in Manhattan of heart failure on September 28.

Motley was part of a small corps of lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund led by Thurgood Marshall. In the 1950s, they put their lives on the line to end racial segregation, mostly in the American South. She was known, according to the New York Times, for her “quieter, painstaking preparation and presentation of lawsuits,” her elegant dress, lilting voice, and brilliant courtroom tactics. “She argued 10 cases before the United States Supreme Court and won nine of them,” the paper said.

Marshall, who later served as a justice of the United States Supreme Court, was said to believe that, despite death threats and the physical perils of their work in the South, she was safer as a woman. Two of her major cases in the early 1960s involved getting James Meredith, a black man, admitted to the University of Mississippi and Charlayne Hunter-Gault into the University of Georgia in the early 1960s.

Donald S. Harrington, 91, minister and party leader: The Rev. Donald Szantho Harrington was best known as a state chairman of the New York Liberal Party and the pastor of the Community Church of New York in Manhattan, a Unitarian congregation. He died on September 16.

His involvement in city politics grew out of his commitment to social justice. In 1938, he founded the magazine of the International Association for Religious Freedom. In 1952, he and A. Philip Randolph created the American Committee for Africa, an early anti-apartheid group. His church hosted a memorable debate between Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin in 1962, contrasting the different strains in the African American community striving for racial justice. In 1968, he helped found Black and White Action to step up racial integration. He was also an active participant in the movement against the United States war in Vietnam.

The New York Times referred to him as a “liberal crusader,” in both upper and lower cases. He chaired the state Liberal Party for 16 years, but was, according to the paper, a “figurehead for Alex Rose,” the party’s founder. Harrington was ousted as leader by Ray Harding in 1986. Harding moved the party to the right to endorse Rudy Giuliani for mayor in 1989 and eventually it lost its ballot status in the state.

Rabbi Balfour Brickner, former city human rights commissioner, 78: One of the city’s leading social justice activists, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, died of lung cancer. He was the senior rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue from 1980 to 1992 and worked for civil rights his entire life.

In the 1960s, he worked for voting rights in the American South and was jailed for his activities. He was a leader in the movement for a woman’s right to choose an abortion, founding Religious Leaders for Choice. A Zionist since his adolescence, he also advocated for the rights of Palestinians and worked for an end to apartheid in South Africa.

In the early 1980s, Rabbi Brickner was one of the few religious voices for lesbian and gay rights at a time when the city’s Catholic and Orthodox Jewish blocked passage of a city bill to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He testified for the bill in 1986 when it passed after a 15-year campaign.

In 1990, Mayor David N. Dinkins appointed Rabbi Brickner to serve as a commissioner for human rights. In that capacity, he was active on a wide range of issues, including the improvement of police-community relations.

Jack Nichols, early gay activist, 67: Jack Nichols came out as gay as a teenager in the 1950s, and in 1961, at the age of 23, joined forces with Frank Kameny to form the Washington chapter of the Mattachine Society, a pre-Stonewall gay rights group. He organized the first gay protest at a federal building--the White House in 1965--and conceived the idea of challenging the American Psychiatric Association’s classification as homosexuality as a mental illness, a campaign that came to fruition in 1973.

Nichols moved to New York with his partner, Lige Clark, in the late 1960s; and the two became gay columnists for Al Goldstein’s “Screw” magazine, soon spinning off “GAY,” one of the first gay publications sold on newsstands in the United States. They were active participants in the Stonewall Riots of June 1969 that led to the formation of the modern, militant gay and lesbian rights movement.

Nichols never abandoned gay activism, writing several books on the subject and editing the Gay Today Web site in recent years. He died in May at age 67 in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He was remembered at a memorial service at New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in late September as the indispensable activist that he was.

Sandra Feldman, labor leader with roots in the civil rights movement, 65: Sandy Feldman was known primarily as the president of the United Federation of Teachers from 1986 to 1997 and the leader of the national American Federation of Teachers from 1997 to 2004, but her activism grew out of her involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s when she worked to “integrate Howard Johnson restaurants along route 40 in Maryland,” according to the New York Times.

Freedom House issued a statement at her death mourning her “as a champion of freedom, human rights, and racial equality,” including “support for freedom struggles in the Soviet Union, China, and other countries under despotic rule.” She worked closely with the late civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

Her first big involvement in the teachers union was as an aide to union president Albert Shanker during the racially divisive teachers’ strike of 1968 that was followed by legislation giving local communities a higher degree of control over the schools.

The Brooklyn-born Sandra Abramowitz was a graduate of James Madison High School and Brooklyn College. She died of breast cancer on September 18.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  


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