The United States was founded on the idea that all people can come to a new land and be free to live, work, and pursue happiness in the way they see fit. The authors of the Constitution therefore created the Bill of Rights, which, along with the amendments that followed, give us civil liberties which form the basis of our civil rights law as it exists today.
Equal Protection and Discrimination: History
Civil rights law is a widely varied practice area. Perhaps the biggest part involves the right to equal protection under the law, which stems from the Fourteenth Amendment. This aspect of civil rights law is practiced by many attorneys. The Fourteenth Amendment was enacted after the Civil War. The country was flooded with newly freed slaves who wished to work, own property, and build new lives for themselves. However, many people refused to do business with former slaves, and local law enforcement often refused to protect African Americans solely because of their race. Congress therefore passed the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, and, although it was only partially successful at the time, it has since grown to protect people of all races, national origins, and genders from discrimination at the hands of government authorities.
The federal government and many state governments have since developed more laws to prevent many forms of discrimination by private establishments. This is why employers cannot make hiring or firing decisions based on protected categories, such as race, religion, national origin, or gender, and restaurants cannot refuse to serve people based purely on race. This section contains extensive background information on the Equal Protection Clause and discrimination laws.
Other Civil Liberties
There are many other civil liberties that stem from our Bill of Rights. A few of the most well-known are:
- The Fourth Amendment limits law enforcement's ability to search your person or private property. Police must have a warrant or a good reason to believe that you committed a crime before conducting a search or arresting you.
- With the Fifth Amendment's right to remain silent and the Sixth Amendment's rights to an attorney and a speedy trial, the Bill of Rights protects the rights of criminal suspects against an overzealous government.
- The First Amendment grants individuals the right to a free press, to free speech, to free assembly and association, to petition the government, to practice any religion, and to be free from religious indoctrination. The right to vote belongs to all U.S. citizens and is guaranteed by the Constitution. The Voting Rights Act has rules on how states may conduct elections to ensure that everyone has the chance to vote.
One of the strengths of our civil liberties is that they belong to all U.S. citizens, even those who have committed crimes. Prisoners still maintain basic constitutional rights to privacy, speech, religion, and due process. However, a number of rights and liberties may be limited while an individual serves prison time. Indeed, even afterward, those on parole or individuals who committed serious offenses may find their right to vote or other freedoms curtailed.
Due Process and Enforcement of Civil Rights Violations
The unsung hero of the constitutional amendments, however, is the right to Due Process, which can be found in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The right to Due Process means that the government cannot take away the rights to life, liberty, or property, without a proper hearing. Because of the right to Due Process, Congress and state legislatures have created complaint processes in several government agencies designed to help you enforce your civil rights.