Civil Rights Law

Civil rights law is focused on defending fundamental and specific human rights. Many human rights—or civil rights—are guaranteed to American citizens by the U.S. Bill of Rights and Constitution. Civil rights are also created by U.S. Supreme Court decisions and federal and state laws.

Civil Rights in the United States

U.S. civil rights are basic human rights based on equal treatment and freedom from discrimination. These rights are outlined in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Civil rights are enforced and protected by federal (and sometimes state) law. A U.S. citizen cannot be discriminated against due to personal or ethnic characteristics, including:

  • Biological sex
  • Race or ethnicity
  • National origin
  • Physical limitation (e.g. disabilities)
  • Age
  • Religion or religious beliefs

Along with freedom from discrimination, a U.S. citizen has rights to:

  • Equal treatment under the law
  • Liberty
  • Protection
  • Vote
  • Equality in public settings
  • Bear arms (i.e. guns)
  • Due process (i.e. full and fair treatment and rights in a court of law)
  • Free speech
  • Freedom of the press (i.e. no government-enforced censorship)
  • Freedom of peaceful assembly (i.e. public meetings and associations)
  • Freedom from involuntary servitude

Discrimination

Discrimination occurs when someone denies or interferes with another's civil rights. Victims of discrimination may pursue legal action. Examples of discrimination include:

  • Denying service to someone based on their religion
  • Losing an employment opportunity because of a disability
  • Barring admission to a public or state school based on one’s race or ethnicity.

Note that while there are many laws seeking to protect homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, or transgender citizens from discrimination, they are not currently protected across all 50 states by civil rights laws.

Key Civil Rights Laws, Cases

Many laws and Supreme Court decisions have shaped American civil rights. Civil Rights continue to evolve through court decisions and legislation. Below are few examples of some key civil rights legislation and court decisions.

Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Our constitutional rights have evolved over the years through newer constitutional amendments, legislation, and judicial rulings. Court decisions can also help to clarify laws and legal definitions of constitutional protections.

U.S. Constitutional Amendments

13th Amendment: Banishes slavery or involuntary servitude in the U.S. and its territories.

14th Amendment: Grants citizenship and all associated civil rights to anyone born or naturalized in the U.S. and its territories.

15th Amendment: Protects a citizen's right to vote regardless of race/ethnicity, skin color, or previous condition of servitude.

19th Amendment: Protects a citizen's right to vote regardless of biological sex.

Civil Rights Laws

The Equal Pay Act of 1963: Enforces equal pay for equal work regardless of the employee's biological sex.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Prohibits racial/ethnic, religious, sexual, or nationality discrimination in:

  • Voting
  • Federally-assisted programs
  • Employment
  • Public accommodations, facilities, and education

Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978: Prohibits discrimination against female workers who are or intend to become pregnant. Discrimination is prohibited for considerations of hiring, promotion, and termination.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990: Prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in:

  • Education
  • Employment
  • Access to public accommodations

Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993: Protects employees from wrongful termination or other punishment for taking time off from work to care for newborn or recently adopted children, or ill family members.

Noteworthy Supreme Court Decisions

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS: Ended racial segregation in public schools.

Bailey v. Patterson: Ended racial segregation in public transportation facilities.

Lawrence v. Texas: Protects the rights of same-sex couples against wrongful criminalization.

United States v. Windsor: Deemed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional because it violated homosexual rights and interfered with state rights to legally define marriage.

Getting Legal Help

If you believe that your civil rights have been violated, a civil rights attorney can help protect your legal rights. Civil rights lawsuits can be complex. An attorney can help guide you through the legal process.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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