WASHINGTON — Expanding the scope of the nation's civil rights laws, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that Jews, Arabs and others who suffer discrimination based on their "ancestry" are protected under statutes barring racial discrimination.
In two unanimous decisions, the justices concluded that Congress in the original 1866 Civil Rights Act intended not only to protect blacks but also immigrants and others who suffer because of their nationality or appearance.
Lawyers for Jewish and Arab groups, who filed common appeals to the high court, praised the rulings as an enlightened attack on social discrimination.
But, in practical terms, the rulings' main beneficiary may be Latinos, the nation's second-largest minority group. Courts have been divided over whether Latinos are covered by all federal civil rights statutes.
The 1866 law said that its coverage applied to those who were not "white citizens," and a federal appeals court covering the Western states had ruled that light-skinned persons of Mexican ancestry were not protected because they are "white."
"This Supreme Court ruling puts that issue to rest," said Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles. She predicted that the law will be especially valuable in challenging discrimination related to the new immigration law.
"We see this as a major victory that greatly expands civil rights protections for Hispanics," Hernandez said.
The two cases before the high court stemmed from the spray-painting of anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans and symbols on a synagogue in Silver Spring, Md., and the loss of tenure by a professor at St. Francis College of Loretto, Pa., who was a U.S. citizen born in Iraq.
In the first case, a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., had dismissed the congregation's civil rights suit against the men who desecrated the synagogue on the grounds that Jews are not a separate race. In the second case, an appeals court in Philadelphia allowed the suit by the Arab professor, Majid Ghaidan Al-Khazraji, after concluding that he may have suffered from discrimination based on his ancestry.
Justice Byron R. White, writing for the court, pointed out that the term "race" in the 19th Century was more akin to what today might be considered "nationality." During the 1866 debate, lawmakers referred to the "German race," the "Scandinavian race" and the "Anglo-Saxon race," he noted.
"Based on the history of Section 1981 (of the Civil Rights Act), we have little trouble in concluding that Congress intended to protect from discrimination identifiable classes of persons who are subjected to intentional discrimination solely because of their ancestry or ethnic characteristics," White wrote.
Dilemma for Jews
Lawyers for Jewish groups said that the case posed a dilemma because they do not want to foster the myth that Jews are a separate race.
"The court has clearly vindicated the right of Arabs and Jewish plaintiffs to seek relief under federal civil rights laws, without crossing the lines to declare they are members of a separate race," said Gregg Levy, an attorney representing the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
Abdeen Jabara, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said the decision "recognizes that Arab-Americans have been subject to a certain degree of racism in the U.S. This case is so important because it says that racism directed at any individual because of his ancestry, religion or origin is as odious as racism based on his skin color."
The cases are Shaare Tefila Congregation vs. Cobb, 85-2156, and St. Francis College vs. Al-Khazraji, 85-2169.
Military Death Suit
In other actions, the court:
--Ruled that the family of a military man killed in a helicopter accident may not sue the government, even though his death may have resulted from the negligence of federal civilian employees. On a 5-4 vote, the court reaffirmed its rule that military personnel may not sue for injuries that are "incidents to service" (U.S. vs. Johnson, 85-2039).
--Decided that a state may deduct child support payments from a disabled veteran's monthly federal checks. A Vietnam veteran who lost his legs, an arm and an eye in combat contended that his $3,500 monthly benefit was off limits to state "seizure" but, on an 8-1 vote, the justices said that Tennessee could deduct $800 a month to support his children (Rose vs. Rose, 85-1206.).
--Ruled on a 5-4 vote that a Mississippi judge erred when he dismissed a juror who expressed reservations about the death penalty. The high court vacated the death sentence for a murderer and ordered a new sentencing hearing (Gray vs. Mississippi, 85-5454).
--Let stand a Florida court ruling upholding a state law that permits medical examiners to remove corneas for transplant before getting permission from the dead person's family (Powell vs. Florida, 86-1536).
--Rejected an appeal from two Baptist church schools in Michigan that were forced to shut down after they violated state laws requiring all of their teachers to be licensed. They contended that the law was unconstitutional as a state regulation of religion (Sheridan Road Church vs. Michigan, 86-1560).
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