The New Hampshire Department of Justice is launching a new Civil Rights Unit to strengthen its enforcement of anti-discrimination law. The move is one of two equity and inclusion efforts announced by Gov. Chris Sununu on Thursday.
New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald joined Sununu in making the announcement. He said a formal focus on civil rights in his department is simply overdue. “Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island [all] have civil rights units,” he said. “I have long felt it’s important for our office to have resources dedicated to these important laws.”
The unit will not only lead state enforcement efforts, but it will also work with local communities to prevent bias and discrimination.
Sununu also announced a new governor’s advisory council focusing on diversity and inclusion. That group will lead listening sessions around the state, and ultimately present the governor with recommendations this spring on how New Hampshire can improve its equity work, including on issues of race, gender, age and disability.
"We are the Live Free Or Die state," Sununu said. "If we really want to live by those words – 'live free or die' – we must ensure that New Hampshire is a place where every person, regardless of their background, has an equal and full opportunity to pursue their dreams and to make a better live for themselves and their families.”
The announcement comes on the same day that the Attorney General's office said its investigation into an alleged racially-motivated attack on a boy in Claremont was complete. Other communities in the state have experienced incidents, including Durham, and there were racial incidents at the University of New Hampshire earlier this year.
Devon Chaffee, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, applauded the new unit as important steps to protect civil rights and promote diversity and equality. In addition to incidents at UNH, she pointed out that the FBI tracked a surge in hate crimes in 2016 in the Granite State.
"Our civil rights laws mean little if we do not commit the resources to uphold and enforce them," she said in a statement.
A group advocating for transgender people in New Hampshire also responded positively to the announcements Thursday. Linds Jakows, with Freedom New Hampshire, said the governor’s explicit mention of the transgender community in his announcement came as a welcome surprise. “It’s really exciting to see that he’s recognized that this is an important group of people that need strong action to protect us from discrimination," Jakows said.
Unlike other New England states, New Hampshire does not explicitly ban discrimination based on gender identity. A bill to change that will be considered in the legislative session that begins in January.
(This report was updated with statements from the ACLU-NH and Freedom New Hampshire)