From the start, the ACLU of North Carolina and our supporters knew that 2017 would be a time to fight. We saw those in power, emboldened by the Trump administration's agenda, more determined than ever to attack our constitutional rights, from discriminating against transgender North Carolinians, to targeting immigrants in our communities, to chipping away at our First Amendment rights.
But we also saw something else: you. The person who stands up for others, raises their voice, and demands justice. Together this year, we were able to stop some of the most egregious violations of our rights, and also achieve some important victories.
Below are a few of those triumphant moments that advanced justice in 2017.
Criminal Justice Reform: We finally “Raised the Age”
This year we made a difference in the lives of thousands of kids in North Carolina. After years of advocacy by our team and a coalition of advocates, North Carolina legislators finally “raised the age” so that most 16-and 17-year-olds charged with crimes will now be sent to the juvenile justice system rather than adult jails where they are at greater risk of suicide and sexual assault.
This significant change in our state’s criminal justice system also means that a young person who makes one bad decision and is charged with even the most minor offense will no longer be saddled with the lifelong consequences of a permanent criminal record, which makes it difficult if not impossible to go to college, get a job, find housing, and serve in the military.
This was a hard-fought battle that lasted for more than a decade. But our strength together brought us to this moment—the moment when we finally did the right thing for North Carolina children and their families.
Voting Rights: Defeat of the worst voter suppression law in the country
Along with our partners, the ACLU this year won a four-year court battle that preserved same-day registration, a week of early voting, and easier access to the polls for thousands of North Carolinians.
In 2013, the ACLU, Southern Coalition for Social Justice and others challenged North Carolina’s sweeping voter suppression law that would have deprived thousands of people of their right to vote. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law in 2016, finding that it intentionally discriminated against Black voters.
In May, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would not review that ruling, shutting the door on the state’s last available option to implement the law that imposed a voter ID requirement, cut a week of early voting, and eliminated same-day registration.
This major voting rights victory came as states across the country are enacting laws that restrict access to voting. These laws, in almost every instance, disproportionately impact communities of color, first-time, and low-income voters. This year’s ruling sent an unequivocal message to lawmakers in North Carolina and those across the country who would limit voting rights: Not on our watch.
Religious Liberty: Big win in our Rowan County prayer case
This summer we secured a major victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination or being forced to join in prayers that go against their beliefs.
The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held in a 10-5 ruling in our case representing three Rowan County residents that Rowan County’s commissioners violated the Constitution when they routinely opened public meetings by coercing participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.
One of the bedrock principles of the First Amendment is that our government should never promote one set of religious beliefs over others. The full Fourth Circuit correctly ruled that Rowan County's practice was discriminatory and violated the Constitution. While this case has been appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, we think the Fourth Circuit’s decision should be the final word. But no matter what, we will continue defending the rights of our clients and all Rowan County residents to be free from religious coercion by government officials.
People Power: More people are card-carrying members of the ACLU than ever before
This year we grew stronger than ever with our largest membership in history—more than 33,000 card-carrying members in North Carolina and 1.6 million nationwide. Our work is possible because of your support, and our voice grows louder with every new member.
Across the country we saw a resurgence of civic activism. In every corner of North Carolina, people took action in record numbers, out in the streets, online, and on the phones. And we saw it make a difference. For example, more than 1,800 ACLU of North Carolina members and supporters contacted state legislators within 24 hours to defeat the so-called “Economic Terrorism” bill that would have severely chilled First Amendment rights. Our concerns were brought up by several legislators during the debate, and the bill was defeated by a single vote.
In 2017, we witnessed the first wave of unrelenting assaults on our rights from the Trump administration. We saw calculated and ever more extreme attacks on civil liberties from our state legislature. But we also saw you stand up and fight back again and again. And that is what we will remember when we reflect on 2017 and prepare for the year to come.