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Civil Rights Basics

Welcome to the Civil Rights Basics section of FindLaw, which provides a general introduction to civil rights and related laws. The term "civil rights" refers to statutory and court-mandated protections from discrimination and other forms of unequal treatment on the basis of national origin, race, gender, and other such characteristics. Civil rights also include freedom from cruel or otherwise excessive force by police officers or other government agents. Articles and resources include a primer on the origins of civil rights laws, an overview of the Bill of Rights, a civil rights quiz, summaries of landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions impacting civil rights, and more.

Civil Rights vs. Civil Liberties

People sometimes interchange the terms "civil rights" and "civil liberties," but they mean very different things. Civil rights refer to the rights of all individuals to be treated equally under the law, without discrimination or harassment. Refusing to serve an African-American family at your restaurant, for instance, would be a violations of their civil rights. Civil liberties, on the other hand, refer to the various freedoms granted under the law, such as the freedom of the press and the right to assemble. If you are arrested after writing an opinion piece in the newspaper (assuming it doesn't defame anyone), then your civil liberties have been violated.

Civil rights granted by the federal government may not be limited in any way by state or local governments, although they may expand on these rights. For example, several states protect the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals (which is not a federal protection).

Discrimination Overview

One of the main functions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is to prevent discrimination against minorities and other historically marginalized individuals in the areas of employment, housing, education, and public accommodation. To discriminate is to treat someone unfairly on the basis of a particular characteristic, such as their skin color or sexual orientation. To have one of these characteristics is to be a member of a protected class; for instance, African Americans belong to a protected class and may file federal claims if they are treated adversely on the basis of their race or skin color.

The following characteristics define the various protected classes under federal civil rights law:

  • Age - Employees over 40 are protected from age-related discrimination
  • Disability - The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of the disabled
  • Race - Racial discrimination against African Americans was the main impetus behind the Civil Rights Act
  • Color - Someone's race may be less of a factor than their actual skin color, so this covers such scenarios
  • National origin - It is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of national origin even if the perpetrator is mistaken about the target's nationality (similarly, the ADA prohibits discrimination against people merely perceived to have a disability)
  • Religion - Employer may require employees to make certain concession if they can prove a compelling reason (fire departments, for instance, can require men who grow beards for religious reasons to shave, since facial hair may compromise the effectiveness of ventilators)
  • Gender - While this typically affords protections for women, discrimination on the basis of gender is prohibited generally
  • Genetic information - The Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act prevents employers and others from using DNA or genetic markers to screen individuals

State laws and local ordinances often provide additional protections. California and many other states protect their gay and lesbian residents from discrimination by classifying LGBT individuals as a protected class.

Civil Rights and Police Conduct

It is no secret that police officers sometimes go too far by using excessive force, selectively enforcing laws against members of a particular ethnic group, planting evidence, or otherwise violating the civil rights of U.S. residents. Since police are government employees, civil rights laws protect the public from the excesses that sometimes occur. When officers violate an individual's civil rights through willful misconduct, victims generally may sue for compensatory and punitive damages.

Click on a link below to learn more about the basics of civil rights.

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