One of the aspects of civil rights law that can get confusing for non-lawyers is the fact that “civil rights law” includes a myriad of national, state, and local laws that at times work together and at other times do not. This is particularly true when dealing with local anti-discrimination laws. But rather than view this legal highway as some complicated maze designed to confuse and discourage the enforcement of rights, I’d like to argue it is just the opposite.
Take for instance recent litigation in New York. A district court is being asked to decide if the New York Human Rights Act protects obesity, standing alone, as a disability. The plaintiff in the case has argued that he lost his job as a karate instructor simply for being obese. Federal disability law does not recognize obesity as a disability, but the language of the New York Human Rights Act just might.
Civil rights advocates and disability law practitioners have argued for decades that the growing conservative bias in the federal courts have all but undone the intended protections of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Decisions at both the United States Supreme Court and the federal appellate courts have limited the number of cases heard to enforce the protections of the rights of persons with disabilities and limited the awards possible for violations of those rights. But rather than sit back and take the abuse of judicial discretion at the federal level, activists have responded by making sure protection exists at the local level.
Now, I’m not suggesting that as a per se matter of law obesity should be considered a disability. Nor am I suggesting that the district judge in this case is going to find that obesity should be considered a disability under the broader New York Human Rights Act. But what I am drawing attention to is the fact that these definitions can and should be fluid and malleable to adjust to our changing understanding of health and illness. When either the left or the right stakes a claim to a “pure” understanding of this area of the law, we should view that claim with suspicion because it is, inevitably, shortsighted and self-serving.
And it also completely disregards the appropriate role of the courts in making sure our laws continue to reflect and respect the founding principles of this country–principles that are the very core of civil rights jurisprudence. Which is why the New York case is such an interesting and important example for us to turn to in remembering that as culture evolves, so too should our laws.
photo courtesy of Tobyotter via Flickr