Civil Rights Law

People have certain legal protections in the United States. This includes protected freedoms, due process, and equal protection under the law. All of these rights exist because someone fought for them.

This article provides an overview of civil rights laws in the United States. If you believe that someone in a position of authority has violated your civil rights, contact a local and experienced civil rights lawyer.

What Are Civil Rights?

Civil rights are those human rights guaranteed to American citizens by the U.S. Constitution. U.S. Supreme Court decisions, civil rights laws from Congress, and state laws also create, solidify, and protect civil rights. Some civil rights guarantee freedoms like the freedom of speech. Others protect certain groups of people from discrimination.

Civil rights are fundamental human rights. Human rights are based on the belief that all people are created equal and deserve equal treatment. Equal treatment means freedom from discrimination. These rights are in the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, also called the Bill of Rights.

State and federal governments enforce and protect civil rights. For example, you can’t face discrimination for certain personal or ethnic characteristics, including your:

  • Gender or gender identity
  • Race, ethnicity, or skin color
  • National origin
  • Disabilities
  • Age
  • Religion, religious practices, or religious beliefs
  • Sexual orientation

Every U.S. citizen is also guaranteed freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the freedom of religion. A U.S. citizen has the right to equal protection of the laws. This includes rights related to:

  • Liberty
  • Protection
  • Voting rights
  • Equality
  • Access to public facilities
  • Possession of firearms
  • Due process and fair treatment in a court of law

Civil Rights and Nondiscrimination

Discrimination occurs when someone denies or interferes with your civil rights. Victims of discrimination can take legal action. Examples of discrimination include:

  • Denying service to you based on your religion
  • Losing a job because of a disability
  • Barring your admission to a public school based on your race or ethnicity

Discrimination can happen with explicit actions, like with a sign barring Black people from entering a store. It can also happen when rules or requirements affect one group more than the other. An example of implicit employment discrimination is when a workplace has policies against beards or only provides employee materials in English.

Key Civil Rights Laws and Cases

American civil rights continue to evolve through court decisions and legislation in Congress. Below are a 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. These include your:

Court decisions can also help to clarify constitutional protections in the Bill of Rights. For example, in Schenk v. United States, the Supreme Court said that freedom of speech does not allow a person to shout “fire!” in a crowded theater.

U.S. Constitutional Amendments

Beyond the Bill of Rights, the Constitution contains several other important civil rights in its other amendments. These include:

  • 13th Amendment: Outlaws slavery or involuntary servitude in the U.S. and its territories
  • 14th Amendment: Grants citizenship and all civil rights to anyone born or naturalized in the U.S. and its territories
  • 15th Amendment: Protects citizens’ right to vote regardless of race or ethnicity
  • 19th Amendment: Protects everyone’s right to vote regardless of biological sex

Civil Rights Laws

In addition to the Constitution, Congress has passed several key federal civil rights laws over the years. These include:

  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963: Enforces equal pay for equal work regardless of an employee’s biological sex.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Bans discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or nationality. This applies to voting, employment, education, and public accommodations.
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965: Outlaws discriminatory voting practices that make it harder for voters to exercise their rights.
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978: Prohibits discrimination against workers who are or intend to become pregnant. These anti-discrimination protections apply when considering hiring, promotion, and termination.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990: Prohibits discrimination in education, employment, and public accommodations against people with disabilities.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993: Protects employees from being fired or other punishment for taking time off from work to care for family members.

Supreme Court Decisions

The Supreme Court often has to weigh in on clarifying civil rights laws and constitutional amendments. Some of its most important civil rights decisions include:

  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS: Desegregation in public schools
  • Bailey v. Patterson: Ended racial segregation in public transportation facilities
  • Loving v. Virginia: Established marriage as a fundamental right and banned laws that stopped people of different races from marrying
  • Lawrence v. Texas: Protects the rights of same-sex couples against wrongful criminalization
  • Obergefell v. Hodges: Struck down any limitations in state laws that prohibited same-sex marriages
  • Bostock v. Clayton County: Ruled that the sex discrimination ban in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers sexual orientation and gender identity

Civil rights lawsuits can be complex. Age discrimination, equal rights, access to health care, and other civil rights issues hinge on the facts and circumstances of the situation.

If you believe your civil rights have been violated, talk to a civil rights lawyer to help protect your legal rights. A civil rights lawyer will apply civil rights laws to your situation, guide you through the legal process, support you, and represent you. 

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