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Civil Rights Overview

The freedom from unequal treatment on the basis of skin color, gender, religion, disability or other protected characteristics is collectively called civil rights. Most civil rights protections originate through federal legislation or federal case law (often from U.S. Supreme Court decisions). FindLaw's Civil Rights Overview section contains general information about civil rights, their origin and ongoing development, how civil rights differ from civil liberties, and the basics of hate crimes. This section includes a glossary of civil rights and discrimination terms, a timeline of civil rights events in the U.S., a summary of relevant U.S. Supreme Court cases, the basics of how hate crime laws are enforced, and related information.

What are Civil Rights?

"Civil rights" are the rights of individuals to receive equal treatment in a number of settings such as education, employment, housing, and elsewhere. Historically civil rights have been focused predominantly on achieving equal treatment for other races, particularly for African-Americans, but the term also describes the struggle to end discrimination against people for their sex, disability, age, national origin, religion, and other characteristics in addition to race.

Civil rights are frequently identified and protected in federal laws, although states also pass legislation intended to end discrimination and even municipalities like cities and counties may enact ordinances and laws related to civil rights. In nearly every case the laws intend to eliminate discrimination.

What is Discrimination?

Discrimination, in plain English, means to distinguish or treat differently. In the context of civil rights and the treatment of people unlawful discrimination refers to unequal treatment of an individual or group based on certain characteristics. In the United States unlawful discrimination is recognized when the different treatment is the result of the person's age, disability, ethnicity, gender, marital status, national origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation.

Not all kinds of discrimination are unlawful and discrimination is not prohibited in all settings. Over time the classes of those discriminated against has expanded through legislation and changing interpretations of existing civil rights laws. The context in which discrimination is forbidden has also seen some expansion. At present discrimination is barred in education, employment, housing, government benefits and services, health care access, land use/zoning, lending and credit, public accommodations, transportation, and voting.

What is a Hate Crime?

A hate crime, also known as a bias crime, is a criminal act perpetrated on account of the victim's race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 first established federal jurisdiction over crimes that involved the willful injury, intimidation, or interference with another person on account of race, color, religion, or national origin.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 increased penalties and expanded the protected classes in the context of federal crimes. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 again expanded the protected groups, this time including sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. The Act also eliminated the prerequisite condition that the victim be engaged in a federally protected activity at the time of the attack.

Hate crime laws are vigorously debated and state hate crime laws are highly inconsistent. Some states recognize fewer protected groups, while others include groups not recognized on a federal level, such as the homeless.