FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2011, OR THEREAFTER
BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“FOR MANY, GENETIC DISCRIMINATION BILL WILL BE YEAR’S KEY LAW”
There was plenty of publicity when California lawmakers debated for months over the state budget, yet the outcome – many cuts, almost no revenue increases – was a foregone conclusion once it became obvious tax receipts were running below projections and Republicans would never vote for new tax levies.
That was an example of how legislators in this state are usually little more than bookkeepers who sometimes move money from one category to another, but rarely have much effect on the largest expenditures – schools, bond payments and federally-mandated programs like Medi-Cal.
All the posturing in Sacramento makes politicians feel important, but since 1970, the most important laws in this state have almost all been passed by the people via ballot initiatives. From coastal protection to water quality, insurance rates, gay marriage and prison sentencing, the voters and not the politicians decide the issues people care about most. That’s why voters generally don’t mind if their ballots stretch out for many pages. They know they’re deciding important issues.
And yet…once in awhile, legislators get to accomplish something important. So it was in 2006, when they passed AB32, this state’s landmark bill to help limit the effects of greenhouse gases and climate change. That law is still a focus for major contention, with most Democrats claiming it will eventually produce many thousands of new jobs, while the bulk of Republicans call it a horrible job-killer. Time will tell.
Again this year, lawmakers got a chance to pass a landmark bill and they did. This one updates the longstanding Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1959, which bans discrimination on the basis of race, national origin and religion in fields like housing, employment and education. Since it passed, that law has been updated to ban most discrimination on grounds of gender or sexual preference, too.
The current crop of lawmakers got a chance to make another vital update to the Unruh act. The good news is that they actually did it, and in a strongly bipartisan way.
The law they passed with majorities of better than 2-1 in both the state Senate and Assembly will add a ban on discrimination based on genetic information to the list of protections Californians now enjoy. Such discrimination will henceforth not be allowed in housing, employment, education, public accommodations, health and life insurance coverage, mortgage lending and elections.
This kind of broad protection is not specifically offered by the U.S. Constitution. And the federal Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 protects only against discrimination in hiring and health insurance. Nor is it likely today’s conservative, rather literal-minded U.S. Supreme Court majority will decide anytime soon that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment implies the kind of wide protection in Senate Bill 559, signed without comment by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Fortunately, the high court has often ruled that states can give their citizens more protections than the federal Constitution or federal law provide. This was the basis for both the original Unruh Act and its companion anti-discrimination law, the Rumford Act, which passed a couple of years later.
The new bill, passed almost completely beneath the media radar screen, was carried by Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla, a former Los Angeles city councilman who will likely run for Congress next year in a newly-drawn district which has no incumbent.
His bill will be especially helpful to women with family histories of breast or uterine cancer, who are sometimes denied health or life insurance. It might also prove useful to persons with family histories of lupus, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell anemia and many other diseases. Persons with such genetic diseases sometimes feel compelled to get their children tested secretly, with no official record, in order to protect the next generation from discrimination, while at the same time letting them get started with actions that might mitigate these kinds of genetic ailments. (Full disclosure: the writer has genetically-caused polycystic kidney disease, which led to kidney failure and a subsequent transplant.)
Said Padilla, “California led the nation with the passage of the Unruh Act. We are updating it and bringing it confidently into the 21st Century, (to) ensure that the advances in genetic testing…cannot be used to discriminate against any Californian.”
All of which goes to show that even in Sacramento’s often-poisonous partisan climate, it’s still possible to do some good work.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net