What exactly is a civil right?

The notion of individual civil rights has existed throughout U.S. history. The nation’s founders declared that every individual is entitled to certain unalienable rights, such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The right to vote, the right to equality in public places, the right to freedom of speech, and the right to freedom from involuntary servitude are all examples of the civil rights the Founding Fathers espoused. However, as history has shown, for some groups of people civil rights have often been diminished or even unavailable.

While it has not always been the case historically, the protections offered by civil rights today ensure that all individuals are treated equally. Modern civil rights include protections against gender discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, racial discrimination, and age discrimination. State and federal laws that protect individuals’ civil rights are found in a variety of contexts, including housing, employment, education, and public services. Various federal civil rights statutes protect people nationwide from being discriminated against because of their gender, age, race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, disability, or sexual orientation.

As a foundation for civil rights, the U.S. Constitution offers protection to individuals from discrimination by the government. The 5th Amendment of the Constitution specifically limits the federal government’s ability to infringe on individual civil rights, while the 14th Amendment prohibits state governments from depriving any person of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” as well as denying “any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” As an example of how these provisions play out, the right to equal protection in the employment context means that the government may not treat employees unequally based on protected characteristics such as gender, race, or ethnicity. The federal government has also passed numerous civil rights statutes that protect individual employees in their relationships with employers. However, because the federal government has limited jurisdiction over states, federal protection of civil rights alone has often been inadequate. This “hole” in protection has continuously sparked efforts to protect individual civil rights among state governments.

The Impact of the Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is a powerful example of the successful furthering of civil rights within the states. The civil rights movement was a non-violent movement aimed at eliminating racial segregation and discrimination against African-Americans in the United States. But the movement was about more than just changing the law; its goal was to further racial dignity and break free of the historical oppression that African-Americans had faced in education, politics, economics, and in all other facets of life and society.

As a result of the heroic efforts of activists in the civil rights movement, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For the first time in U.S. history, legal protections were put in place that prohibited racial segregation in all public establishments, and in any other establishments having a connection to interstate commerce. Because the Civil Rights Act was federal legislation, the federal government used its constitutional authority under the interstate commerce clause to enforce the new laws nationwide, as this is one of the specific areas of authority the federal government has over states. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 thus prohibited segregation in such places as hotels, restaurants, bars, schools, and gas stations. Through the “hook” of interstate commerce, the act also outlawed employment discrimination, as well as discrimination in any federally-funded program.

State Laws Now Offer Greater Civil Rights Protections

Today, all states have enacted statutes that protect the civil rights of individuals within that particular state. In fact, many of these state laws provide more protection to individuals than the federal laws do. State employment law is now one the most significant areas of civil rights law in the American legal system. Employment discrimination law protects employees from the adverse acts of employers based on the gender, age, race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or disability of the employee. More and more states are beginning to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation as well. An employer’s adverse acts can include refusing to hire or promote based on a protected characteristic, or the decision to demote or fire an individual based on a protected characteristic.

Protection of individual civil rights is still a growing area of law within this country. If you believe that your civil rights have been infringed upon based on one of the protected classifications such as race, gender, or religion, contact a civil rights lawyer immediately to discuss your claim.