The newest efforts to advance civil rights has provided a case study in the complexity and flexibility of the American governing system.
For the last 100 years, efforts to expand civil rights to women and ethnic minorities have involved all three branches of government and has exposed the complicated nature of American federalism. Recent attempts to expand civil rights to homosexuals have followed a similar path.
Federalism, or the division of governmental power between the national and state governments, has both helped to speed and slow the extension of civil rights. For instance, the State of Wyoming granted women the right to vote more than 50 years before the federal government. But many state governments stubbornly held onto to the policies of racial segregation while the federal government tried to reduce racial segregation.
The expansion of civil rights to African-Americans provides the clearest example of how all three branches of the federal government can impact policy making.
The executive branch made one of the first bold moves toward desegregation when President Harry Truman issued an executive order to prohibit racial segregation in the Armed Services in 1948.
The judicial branch played a major role in ending racial segregation when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) that racial segregation in public schools violates the Constitution.
The legislative branch then prohibited segregation in public facilities with Congress’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and passed a guarantee of suffrage for African-Americans with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The expansion of civil rights to homosexuals has emerged in a similar pattern over the last 20 years.
President Bill Clinton made one of the first big governmental moves in this most recent civil rights movement when he issued an executive order than allowed gay men and women to serve in the Armed Services as long as they did not reveal their homosexuality. But gay activists contend that this policy provided incomplete protections to gay service members.
Congress is now in the process of trying to pass legislation that would allow openly gay men and women to serve in the military. And if Congress is unable to pass this bill through the obstacles of the U.S. Senate, some federal courts have expressed interest in changing the policy through judicial rulings.
The battle over the expansion of marriage rights to gay couples has been fought mostly at the state level, but started in the judicial branch.
In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated state laws against homosexual sex. Shortly afterward, some states began to look for ways to expand marriage to gay couples while other states passed legislation to prohibit same-sex marriage.
This week, the State of Illinois became the latest place to debate the legality of gay partnerships in its passage of legislation to allow gay civil unions. This new policy will allow gay men and women to form legal partnerships to simplify the legalities of inheritance, medical decisions and adoptions by gay partners.
The efforts to expand civil rights in the areas of race, gender and sexual orientation still continue in all three branches of the federal government and at more local levels of government. Students of government can look as these efforts to observe the intricacy of policy change throughout American government.