Civil Rights and Our Nation’s Conscience

Photo by Scott Weldon

MARTIN R. CASTRO served as chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) from 2011 until December 2016 and was the first Latino chairperson in the commission’s history. In September 2016 the USCCR issued a nearly 300-page report, “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties,” exposing how religious liberty arguments were being used to violate Americans’ civil rights. Castro and the commission faced heavy backlash from Christian conservatives.

Currently the president and CEO of Castro Synergies, LLC, a consulting firm, Castro also serves as the interim CEO of Casa Central, the Midwest’s largest Latino social service agency. He sits on the boards of Communities in Schools and the National Museum of Mexican Art, and he is a member of the Global Diplomacy Lab. On June 9, 2017, Castro was honored at the annual conference of the American Humanist Association. The following is adapted from his remarks (solely his personal views) in acceptance of the AHA’s Religious Liberty Award.

It’s a real honor for me to be here. My term on the commission—six years almost—was one of the greatest opportunities of my professional and personal life, as it allowed me to serve my fellow Americans as the head of an organization that always has been and hopefully always will be our nation’s conscience on civil rights issues.

Our 2016 report, “Peaceful Coexistence,” was one of many that we issued throughout my term in office. I’m proud of the type of attention that we received for this report because it said to me that we struck an important nerve—that indeed we were acting as the nation’s conscience on civil rights. We were seeing efforts to create exceptions to our anti-discrimination laws, in favor of a twisted view of “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” that would allow us to impose one group’s religious views on others and, in fact, eradicate and eliminate other people’s civil rights. We could not stand by and let this go unanswered by the commission.

The US Commission on Civil Rights very plainly and very simply said that when you are balancing issues of religion and issues of nondiscrimination, that balance should be struck very thoughtfully and very carefully. And when exceptions to anti-discrimination laws do occur, we have to acknowledge that those exceptions injure the anti-discrimination laws, so they should be few and far between. That was a powerful statement. And of course, just like on the Supreme Court, there’s the majority opinion of the commission, which requires the vote of at least five commissioners, but then each of us gets to share our own point of view in attached concurring or dissenting statements.

My conservative colleagues weren’t happy with what we concluded, so they went off on their own. Some of us on the progressive side thought that maybe we didn’t speak strongly enough. I was one of those folks. At the time we were also fighting for the rights of the transgender kids who wanted to use bathroom facilities and school facilities. There was a battle, and there still is, going on between local school districts and the federal government over this issue. I’m proud to say that the USCCR was one of the first federal agencies to come out in favor of protections for transgender kids.

I’d like to share my very brief concurring opinion that resulted in a great deal of criticism from the religious right. It’s my habit to open my writings with some sort of a quote or poem. The quote I began my statement with was by John Adams, who said, “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” I went on to say,

The phrases “religious liberty” and “religious freedom,” will stand for nothing except hypocrisy, so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy, or any form of intolerance. Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others. However, today—as in the past—religion is being used both as a weapon and as a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past, religion has been used to justify slavery and later Jim Crow laws. We now see religious liberty and those arguments of the past sneaking their way back into our political and constitutional discourse just like the concept of states’ rights is used in an effort to undermine the rights of some Americans. This generation of Americans must stand up and speak out to ensure that religion must never again be twisted to deny others the full promise of America.

That’s when all hell broke loose (no pun intended). I felt then and I feel today that you can’t carve out exceptions to the laws of this country to accommodate hate and discrimination. We can’t tolerate it. Furthermore, our civil rights and liberties and our human rights are not up for negotiation. They are what they are. We will not accommodate or settle for some lesser rights in favor of others. I’ll tell you, I was raised Catholic. After the bishops came after me, I thought I was going to get excommunicated. But, I left the Catholic Church long before it decided to leave me (although I can’t tell my mom that).

In reality I am a spiritual person. As I said in interviews after the report was published, this is not about undermining religion. I believe in the First Amendment. Everyone has a right to believe in what they want to believe in or not believe in. That is the First Amendment, coupled with the fact that neither I nor you have a right to impose your religious views or nonreligious views on one another. Furthermore, you don’t have the right to hijack my government in order to make it—or me—conform to your religious point of view. And that’s what this is about.

Maybe I’ll get excommunicated yet. The way I’ve run my life and the way I ran my chairmanship on the commission, the way I run what I do today and how I try to teach my children rests on the idea that you have to be strong in your beliefs and willing to stand up for them, even when all around you it seems that no one agrees with you. In fact, that’s how it felt.

After the USCCR report came out, most of what I was seeing in the Twittersphere and in letters and news reports was negativity toward what I had said and what the commission had said. But mostly it focused on my statement. Until I got this wonderful letter from the American Humanist Association telling me, you know what, kid, youre right and we believe in you. Here is a whole list of great people, great Americans, great world citizens, who also believe in what you believe in. That made me feel like I wasn’t alone. For that, I want to thank you. I appreciated it then, and I appreciate it now.

I’m a proud American. I’m first generation on my mom’s side. My dad’s parents came from Mexico and he was born here. I consider myself in many ways an immigrant to this country because I was raised with the values of my parents and grandparents. Spanish was my first language. I didn’t learn how to speak English until Head Start. I’m a proud product of that program and programs like affirmative action.

So, I’m a proud American, but you know what? I’m also a proud citizen of the world. More importantly, I’m a proud member of humankind. To me, humanity—that’s my business. That’s who I try to help. That is what we stand for. Not one particular group, not one particular religious view, not one particular partisan interest, but a set of core principles that say this is what it takes to be a human. This is what we as humans deserve. This is what we as a people should strive for. It’s something we work towards every day.

As humans, what are we? We’re imperfect. Try as we might, we’re not quite hitting the goal but we have to continue. That’s what you’re about. You’re about making sure that we as humans continue to remember that we’re all equal, that we’re all the same, that we all come from that same place. We all ultimately want to get to that same place regardless of our views. And the only way we can do that is to begin to have these conversations with one another. To be sure, we’re going to find people who we can’t convince, and so be it. We move on. Next to him or her, there will be someone willing to have a reasonable conversation about science, about humanity, about math, right? We have to continue to remind people that, yes, there is science. There is reality here. You can’t have a view of the world that is fantasy.

It’s a tough fight. It has been and continues to be. I know with organizations like the American Humanist Association continuing to support individuals such as myself and my fellow honoree, Adam Savage, and the others who you’re honoring this year and in the future, you will continue to build and strengthen this army of humanity. Thank you for the award tonight and for the recognition. I very much appreciate it.

Excerpt from the Q&A

Q: Could you please tell us how the Commission on Civil Rights is selected and if President Trump is going to reselect the entire commission?

Martin Castro: Great question. The commission, when it was first created in 1957, was supposed to be a temporary commission that President Eisenhower and Congress had impaneled in order to give them some advice on the fledgling Civil Rights Movement. At the time there were six commissioners, all presidentially appointed, all subject to US Senate confirmation.

As time went on, during the Reagan-Bush era, there was an effort to try to destroy the commission. President Reagan did not succeed in doing that. What he did succeed in was to create a political compromise whereby the commission was expanded from six to eight. The president no longer has sole authority to appoint but rather shares the appointment authority with Congress; four commissioners are chosen by the president and four by Congress—two by the House and two by the Senate—and none are subject to Senate confirmation. Each commissioner serves a six-year term.

According to the rules, you’re not supposed to have more than four commissioners from one party. During the Reagan-Bush era, instead of appointing all Republicans they began to appoint some conservative Independents. The commission just prior to mine had six conservatives (a mix of Republicans and Independents) and two Democrats. It was doing a lot, in some of our opinion, to undermine civil rights at that time.

When I came aboard in 2011, President Barack Obama appointed me and Roberta Achtenberg, making her the first openly gay member of the USCCR, while I was its first Latino chairperson. I think President Obama sent a strong message about what he wanted this commission to be doing.

When you’re appointed by the president or Congress to the commission, you’re automatically a commissioner. But to be chairman, you need a majority vote of the commissioners. When President Obama elevated me to chairman, we weren’t sure if I was going to get a majority of commissioners to approve me because the majority were still conservative. In the two months that I had served on the commission prior to the president elevating me to chair, I tried to work fairly with the other side and not impose my views on them. In fact, I said to them, you have your views, I have mine. I’m not here to convince you or change your core values. You’re not going to change mine. But there may be things that we can look at that interest all of us.

It was with that understanding, I think, that I got a majority vote from the commission for me to become chairman. When my term expired on December 5, the president still had a few days in office. So he was able to replace me and Commissioner Achtenberg with two other Democrats. In addition, two years before that when President Obama was able to appoint two others, some of us urged him to appoint progressive Independents, which he did. Right now, the commission has a majority of progressives and Democrats and only two conservatives. In a year-and-a-half or so President Donald Trump will have the opportunity to appoint two commissioners.

Q: What are your greatest fears?

A: You know, I have a positive outlook on the world. I see clouds but I try to find that silver lining. Yes, we’re going through some tough times. We’re going to go through some tougher ones. I think the terrible thing would be if these times didn’t create a culture of activism and engagement. That we don’t become more engaged in the process, more active in the role our government plays and the role we play in that government—that is my greatest fear.

As I look around, I see that new pockets of people are being engaged. Young people, people who had been on the sidelines. Veterans who had felt jaded are getting involved and fighting and resisting.

Q: The Voting Rights Act came about because state legislators were so creative in curbing people’s right to vote. What I’m wondering is, we have a similar situation now not only with voting but with reproductive rights, where state legislatures are incredibly creative with figuring out ways to reduce women’s access to abortion. In principle, women still have the right but they can’t exercise it. Is there a way of getting a Reproductive Rights Act like we did with a Voting Rights Act?

A: With all honesty, not in this Congress. Not at this point in time. But you’re raising an important point. The other issue that we’re fighting at the state level, in addition to women’s reproductive rights and voting rights, is immigration rights. We see states that are constantly curtailing them. Texas is the bad guy in all of these areas.

So two things: One, we have to continue to hope and rely on the third branch of government—the judiciary. Lately, thankfully, whether it’s on the travel ban or voting rights in Texas, they’ve been able to curtail some of what we’ve been seeing.

What we need to do as activists, whatever your party—as humanists we clearly share a progressive view of politics in the world—is to engage the political process. Don’t wait for the next presidential campaign, don’t even wait two years from now for the congressional midterms, but this coming year, when there are thirty governorships up for election in the United States. We need to get involved to ensure that those legislators and those governors in each of those states reflect the views of the people in this room because as this federal government progresses, they’re going to continue to push states’ rights issues like they did in the 1960s. And they’re going to continue to take federal dollars and give them to states to the extent they’re not cutting their budget. They’re going to take those dollars and give them in block grants to the states. So the people who are going to be making the decisions on our civil rights, our civil liberties, and how these federal dollars are being spent are going to be the people sitting in our state capitals. Next year, I think everyone here should make every effort to try to elect legislators and governors in our home states that reflect the values you’re here to celebrate.