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February is Black History Month, a time when our nation celebrates and honors the achievements of African Americans. It also is a time when we rededicate ourselves to the ideals upon which our country was founded: equality and freedom.
In the past, Congress has enacted bipartisan laws to ensure that federal tax dollars are not used to subsidize discrimination, and that Americans have real remedies when their civil rights are violated. Unfortunately, recent federal court decisions have weakened these basic protections in ways that Congress never intended.
To strengthen civil rights protections for all Americans, I recently joined U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, (D-MA), and U.S. Congressman John Lewis in co-sponsoring the Civil Rights Act of 2008, S. 2554, which would reinstate accountability for violations of our civil rights and labor laws.
One of the most important provisions in the bill would restore the right of individuals to challenge practices that have an unjustified discriminatory effect based on race, color, national origin, disability, age or gender. This provision is specifically aimed at correcting a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that made it much more difficult for individuals to challenge federally-funded programs that unintentionally discriminate. Thanks to the 2001 Supreme Court ruling, only the federal government can bring such suits.
The Civil Rights Act also provides parity to students, granting the same protection from unlawful harassment in our schools as adults have on the job. Currently, schools that receive federal funds cannot be held accountable if a teacher or classmate harasses a child unless the school had actual notice of the abuse and did virtually nothing to correct the problem. This is true even if the school has turned a blind eye to clear signs of harassment.
Additionally, it would make state employers fully accountable for age discrimination. Under a recent Supreme Court decision, state employers do not have to provide back pay or other monetary damages when they discriminate against workers based on age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The bill would require state employers to give workers full relief for age discrimination, including back pay.
It also would clarify the standard for challenging employment practices that have a discriminatory effect based on age. It makes clear that the standard of proof in cases alleging an unjustified discriminatory effect based on age is the same as in cases alleging an unjustified discriminatory effect based on race, color, gender, national origin, or religion.
Prejudice and discrimination still affect the lives of too many of our citizens. The struggle for civil rights is one that requires constant vigilance, and thatís why I support legislation that will restore the rights of all Americans to challenge all forms of discrimination.