Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Equal Protection : An Essential Ideal Under Our Law

By Neal C. Lemery, Tillamook County Justice of the Peace
Published in Tillamook Headlight Herald, May 11, 2011

This spring, our country is remembering the turmoil and sacrifice of our nation’s Civil War, which began 150 years ago. As our country buried the 900,000 Americans who gave their lives in that war, and reshaped our nation, several democratic ideas took root and became a part of our national fabric.

One of those ideas was that laws should be applied equally to all people, and our legal system should be open to everyone, on an equal footing.

Equal protection means that no person was above the law, and that all people were entitled to the protection and the benefits of our nation’s laws. Freedom and citizenship for African Americans was finally guaranteed in the Constitution. Under the law, former slaves were actually considered to be human beings and not property.

It was a radical change. Oregon was admitted as a state before the Civil War started. Our new state Constitution, approved by Oregon voters in 1857 in an election where only white male landowners could vote, and Congress (again, only white men!) banned slave auctions, but had allowed slaves to be brought into Oregon, and also banned free African Americans from living here.

That mixed message reflected the national confusion about slavery just before the Civil War. The Civil War ended that national agony, and brought to our federal Constitution the idea of “equal protection” and “due process of law” for everyone.

Oregon voters (white men only) later banned Chinese from becoming citizens or owning land. Women weren’t guaranteed the right to vote until the 1920s. Native Americans weren’t even considered citizens until 1927. Oregon banned church supported schools in the 1920s, but the Supreme Court tossed that law out, based on the Equal Protection Clause and the guarantee for freedom of religious expression. Some of the language about slavery wasn’t taken out of the state Constitution until the 1980s!

The first Oregon civil rights law was passed in 1957, and the equal voting laws and school desegregation efforts of the 1960s were controversial. Real estate deed restrictions against African Americans remained fairly common in Tillamook County until then, and the city of Tillamook required African Americans to leave town by sunset.

Today, the laws based on Equal Protection are certainly not considered radical or controversial. We take that basic principle of a free society for granted.

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War began, we accept the basic premise that civilized Americans don’t tolerate slavery, we want a society where women have equal opportunity, and racial discrimination is no longer the law. We take those ideas for granted. We don’t blink an eye over the existence of school sports programs for women, or not considering someone’s race when they are applying for a job or trying to rent an apartment.

We Americans believe in equality. After all, the Pledge of Allegiance calls us to support our nation “with liberty and justice for all.” Our society believes in applying the law equally to everyone. Yet, in 2011, we have our issues and our controversies. We Americans love our debates and our political battles. Religious expression, sexual orientation, racism, and immigration remain hotbeds of debate in our community and drive heated votes in, Congress, our Legislature and on the ballot.

Our ancestors went through tough times so that today, when we debate controversial issues, we all agree that each person is entitled to the Equal Protection of our laws.

As our community discusses our issues of the day, we should recall the changes our nation made to our Constitution 150 years ago, when we decided we believed in Due Process and the Equal Protection of the law.

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