OpEd: Win or lose, Hawaii keeps fighting for rights

This opinion piece was published 1/20/19 in the Honolulu Star Advertiser. https://www.staradvertiser.com/2019/01/20/editorial/insight/win-or-lose-...

By Marianita Lopez, Board President

As Hawai‘i marks Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let’s remember that it’s more than just a day off. Let’s think about how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go in realizing his dream. Hawai‘i is celebrated as a melting pot, as any gathering of friends and family shows. Dr. King said Hawai'i is a “place where we see the glowing daybreak of freedom and dignity and racial justice.” But we don’t always live up to that. The reality is that even in 2019 people in our state are treated differently depending on their gender, skin color, orientation or identity, religion, and wealth.

The struggle for gender equity. Hawai‘i was first to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. Our own Patsy Mink of Maui was not only the first Asian woman in Congress, but also a primary author of Title IX, which prevents any school getting federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex. Yet almost half a century later, we have far to go for Hawaii’s girls. They are still treated differently in our schools every day because of their gender. And when they’ve complained, they’ve been threatened. That’s unacceptable and it’s why we filed a class action lawsuit to stop it.

The struggle against racism. Throughout our criminal justice system, Native Hawaiians, Micronesians, and Filipinos are arrested more often and charged and sentenced more aggressively than other groups, even though rates of drug use and crime are mostly the same for all. Our jails and prisons are bursting at the seams and unsafe. Part of the reason for the overcrowding is that half the people in our jails haven’t been convicted of the crime they’re accused of committing. They’re innocent in the eyes of the law, but sit in jail anyway, unable to afford money bail. Still others who have done nothing wrong – beyond being priced out of the rental market and living houseless – are being criminalized by our government. It’s past time to confront systemic racial and socio-economic bias. These systems demand reform, and we’ll be working to make more progress on that this year.

The struggle for LGBTQ+ rights. Hawai‘i was the 15th state to pass marriage equality and we were the first with a Supreme Court brave enough to call out the unconstitutionality of failing to provide it. Now that marriage equality is a reality, opponents of LGBTQ+ rights are finding other ways to attack. People in sexual minorities still face institutional barriers. The rights of LGBTQ+ people to serve openly in our military, access needed health care services, and simply be treated as every other student in our schools, are frequent targets. Locally, in many areas of our civil rights laws, gender expression and gender identity are explicitly protected – but we must ensure the law is followed.

The struggle for religious freedom. Under the First Amendment everyone has the right to worship (or not) as they choose, and no one has the right to coerce others to worship as they do. That seems basic, but just last year we took on two matters locally that show the work is not done. Laycie Tobosa was denied a full driver’s license for several months by Hilo officials after declining to remove her hijab for the photo. Under their DMV rules, she was supposed to see a religious studies professor at UH to essentially “confirm” her religion. Yes – that happened. In Hawai'i in 2018. In a separate matter, we learned that a local retirement community told its residents they couldn’t exercise their rights under Hawaii’s medical aid in dying law because of a contract with a religious landowner. That was a clear violation of federal law. We intervened in both matters and now changes are being made.

Civil rights battles take time. Even when we win, we’ve got to stay vigilant against the tendency of unconscious bias and actual animus to take on more subtle forms and settle in the bones of our government institutions. Through victory and defeat, that fight continues here in Hawai‘i. And Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a great time to remember that we are all called to take part.