(CNSNews.com) - The head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division says the "next generation" of civil rights challenges includes addressing racial disparities in school discipline; defending the rights of LGBT Americans; combating discrimination in housing and in lending; protecting women from sexual assault and harassment; ensuring the fair treatment of youth in the juvenile justice system; and defending the right to vote in the 21st Century.
"In recent months, the Civil Rights Division has reached landmark consent decrees involving each of these issues," Jocelyn Samuels, the acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, told a civil rights symposium in Indianapolis on Tuesday.
Not only will those agreements provide remedies for the individuals involved -- they also will "serve as models for institutions across the country that are looking to voluntarily improve their own non-discrimination policies and practices."
Samuels said the country has come "a long way" over the past 50 years, but the "robust caseload" at DOJ's Civil Rights Division "is a stark reminder that too many in our nation continue to face barriers to equal opportunity."
According to Attorney General Eric Holder, the since 2009, the Civil Rights Division has filed more criminal civil rights cases than at any other time in the nation's history.
Many of those cases have resulted in legal settlements known as consent decrees. Other DOJ remedies take the form of "policy memos" or "guidance."
In some cases, Samuels noted that the Justice Department is "vigorously enforcing the law," but in others, it is looking for ways to get around the law (Samuels used the words "evaluating" and "interpreting").
For example, Samuels noted that the Civil Rights Division defends the rights of LGBT individuals through the "vigorous enforcement" of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act." That law, signed by President Obama in 2009, strengthened the Justice Department’s ability to prosecute crimes motivated by race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
Samuels also said the Civil Rights Division is "enforcing" federal law to prevent sex discrimination at the nation's colleges and universities; it "vigorously enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace"; and "we enforce the anti-discrimination provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act to ensure employers do not deny employment opportunities to immigrants..."
But when it comes to same-sex marriage, Samuels said the Justice Department, including the Civil Rights Division, is "involved in evaluating and interpreting the Windsor decision’s application to federal programs." That means it is looking for ways to avoid enforcing laws barring homosexual marriage.
Last month, Attorney General Holder issued a "policy memo" saying that in all federal legal matters, the Justice Department "will strive to ensure that same-sex marriages receive the same privileges, protections and rights as opposite-sex marriages."
And as CNSNews.com has reported, Attorney General Holder recently told a gathering of states attorneys they do not have to defend state laws banning same-sex marriage -- because Holder considers those laws to be discriminatory.