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Berlin Passes Sweeping Anti-Discrimination Law

People attend a rally in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Monday to commemorate George Floyd and protest against racism and police violence.
Markus Schreiber
People attend a rally in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Monday to commemorate George Floyd and protest against racism and police violence.

Berlin has become the first German state to pass its own anti-discrimination law. The law bars public authorities — including police — from discriminating against anyone based on background, skin color, gender, religion, disabilities, worldview, age, class, education and sexual identity.

The legislation passed Thursday has been in the works for weeks, but it has taken on a new meaning in the wake of protests against systemic racism that have erupted in the U.S. and spread to cities around the world, including Berlin.

Under the new law, victims are entitled to damages and compensation, and public authorities have an opportunity to dispute claims of discrimination. Previously, the onus for anti-discrimination suits in Berlin was on the victims to prove they had been discriminated against before a lawsuit could go forward. Now if discrimination is considered "predominantly likely," the relevant public authority must then either accept or refute the accusation against it.

Berlin's governing coalition believes that Germany's General Act on Equal Treatment, a federal anti-discrimination law passed in 2006, does not go far enough in protecting civil rights, and that this new state law will enhance legal protections for a wide range of groups.

"This is an important step in the fight against discrimination and racism," regional politician Werner Graf told news organization Euractiv. "For the first time, it is possible to take action against discrimination on the part of state actors and to punish this in a simplified way."

Before it was passed, Berlin's measure was criticized by leaders of Germany's police unions who argued that it puts undue pressure on police officers, placing them under suspicion. Berlin politician Dirk Behrendt of the Green Party told German public broadcaster RBB that the new law aims to address systemic racism rather than hamper the day-to-day work of the police.

"It's about, for example, the practice of racial profiling where the police don't look and observe how someone is behaving regardless of their skin color or their gender," Behrendt told RBB. "For them, the new law doesn't change anything."

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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.