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Immigration, Gay Marriage and the Expanding Definition of Civil Rights

When the Civil Rights Act was signed into law nearly 50 years ago, its main focus was on the treatment of the country's black population. But over the years, other groups have slipped under the act’s umbrella of protection. As theLBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit opened in Austin Tuesday, it began with a discussion of how two groups are hoping those protections will extend to them.

The opening panel at the summit dove right into one of the two civil rights issues dominating the American political and legal landscape: same-sex marriage.

David Boies, a Democrat, and Ted Olson, a Republican, are probably best known for arguing against each other before the U.S. Supreme Court during the 2000 Presidential election. But the two joined sides in 2010 to help overturn California's Prop 8 which banned gay marriage. Boies sees many similarities between the 1960's and the modern battle for gay rights.

"Like the battle for racial civil rights, for a long time people denied that this was a civil rights issue. They defended it on religious grounds, on constitutional grounds, on grounds of tradition, on grounds of protecting the family," Boies said.
"All of the ways that we have, over the course of the history or our country, tried to deny to one group of our citizens the equal rights that our Declaration of Independence and constitution promises to everybody."

His legal partner Olson said the legal precedent on the inability of states to dictate any restrictions to marriage make this case an extension of earlier civil rights battles, like the ability of blacks and whites to marry each other.

"The Supreme Court has said 14 times over the last 150 years that marriage is a fundamental right. It's a matter of liberty, it's a matter of privacy, it's a matter of association, it's the most important relation in life, the Supreme Court has said," Olson said.

Olson and Boies are currently leading the legal efforts to overturn Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage. Olson says with around 40 federal judges all in favor of gay marriage, including here in Texas, he sees the tide turning quickly, although not immediately.

Undocumented immigrants are the other relatively new segment of people hoping for an extension of what some see as civil rights. Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour joined San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for a discussion on the topic.

"And maybe the best example are these DREAMERS, young people who were brought here, through no fault of their own, for all intents and purposes they are Americans, the United States is what they know. And the question is now, are they going be able to have the same opportunities and be treated equally. And so in that sense I see it in the same vein as the civil rights movement," Castro said.

And in that vein, people who feel Congress and the courts are moving too slowly on the issue were at the event to let their voices be heard. One woman yelled out her opposition to record levels of deportation under the Obama administration in the middle of the discussion on the likelihood of immigration changes in Congress.

"Mayor Castro I am a DREAMER and my friend Maria is a DREAMER, our families are under attack. President Obama is deporting families left and right, we need you to act now," yelled the woman from the crowd.

Both of these issues appear to be coming to a resolution in the near future.

Castro and former governor Barbour believe Congress will pass some immigration measures in the next year or so. And with multiple federal courts ruling in favor of gay marriage, legal or legislative resolutions may be coming soon.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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