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Civil Rights

“Defense of Marriage” Laws

About 38 states enacted "Defense of Marriage" laws after the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) became law in 1996. The federal DOMA defines marriage only as a union of a man and a woman. Some of the state Defense of Marriage laws explicitly refuse to recognize a civil union or same sex marriage entered into in another state or country. Some state laws go even further by making no legal recognition of same sex couples. Currently, only Massachusetts permits same sex marriage. Vermont law provides for civil unions.

Enforcement of Voting Rights

Certain jurisdictions, including some states and counties, are expressly "covered" by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These political jurisdictions are comprised of a certain percentage or number of minority voters. Pursuant to the Voting Rights Act, federal courts and the United States Attorney General may "certify" states and counties as needing federal examiners and federal observers to monitor voter registration and voting practices.

Internet surveillance provision of USA PATRIOT Act

A federal court has ruled that the surveillance provision of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA PATRIOT Act) was unconstitutionally broad. In striking down § 505, the federal judge said that while national security was of "paramount value," personal security was equal in importance. The judge held that § 505 was violative of the First Amendment because § 505's permanent ban on disclosure of the request was an impermissible "prior restraint" on free speech. Additionally, the surveillance provision violated the Constitution because it gave "unchecked powers" to obtain private information. Furthermore, it violated the Constitution's prohibitions against unreasonable searches.

The Freedom of Religion in Prisons

The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) says in part that no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of anyone confined to a federally-funded government institution, including prisons and jails. RLUIPA requires prisons to accommodate the religions practiced by inmates. The law allows governmental authorities to interfere with religious practices only if they can show a "compelling governmental interest." Often, prison security and discipline have been found to be sufficient reasons to restrict inmates' religious practices.

The Proposed Flag Protection Amendment

Despite this recent history, some members of Congress are attempting to pass the Flag Protection Amendment to the Constitution. Critics say that if the amendment passes, it would be the first amendment to limit, rather than protect, the freedom of speech.

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