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What Are Civil Rights?

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

Protecting civil rights is an essential part of the democratic values of the United States; and despite the country's legacy of slavery and continued racial inequities, people's individual rights and freedoms are considered sacred. Additionally, most people realize that interfering with another individual's civil rights is a violation that can trigger a lawsuit. The term "civil rights" stimulates intense emotions that get to the roots of morality -- but what are civil rights? It's a broad term with many connotations, but has a specific meaning in U.S. law.

We'll explore the basics of civil rights in U.S. law and where these rights are found in statute and caselaw.

Table of Contents

What are Civil Rights? The Basics

Before you can protect your civil rights, you must recognize and know what they are. Civil rights are an expansive and significant set of rights that are designed to protect individuals from unfair treatment; they are the rights of individuals to receive equal treatment (and to be free from unfair treatment or discrimination) in a number of settings -- including education, employment, housing, public accommodations, and more -- and based on certain legally-protected characteristics.

Historically, the "Civil Rights Movement" referred to efforts toward achieving true equality for African Americans in all facets of society, but today the term "civil rights" is also used to describe the advancement of equality for all people regardless of race, sex, age, disability, national origin, religion, or certain other characteristics. In the United States this has included not only the African American civil rights movement, but also movements that were inspired by the civil rights movement such as the American Indian Movement and the Chicano Movement which occurred during the same time.

Where Do Civil Rights Come From?

Most laws guaranteeing and regulating civil rights originate at the federal level, through federal legislation such as the following laws:

  • Age Discrimination Act of 1975 - Prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in programs and activities that receive federal assistance such as educational programs, health care services, housing, welfare, food stamps, and rehabilitation programs.
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) - Prohibits discrimination against job applicants and employees over the age of 40 in terms of compensation, advancement opportunities, and other employment conditions.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) - Prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability (real and perceived) in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964 - Far-reaching legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in the areas of employment, education, voting, and public accommodations.
  • Fair Housing Act (FHA) - Prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, familial status, and disability.
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 - The first disability civil rights legislation passed in the United States, it prohibits discrimination against disabled people in programs receiving federal financial assistance.
  • Voting Rights Act of 1965 - Enacted to address Jim Crow laws in the Deep South and other barriers minorities faced when trying to participate in elections; key provisions of the Act were removed by the Supreme Court in 2013.

Civil rights also come from federal court decisions (such as those handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision).

States also pass their own civil rights laws (usually very similar to those at the federal level) through the state constitution and other laws. The state laws can also be more protective of civil rights than their federal equivalents, including protections for people who identify as LGBTQ. Municipalities like cities and counties can also enact ordinances and laws related to civil rights.

What are Civil Rights vs. Civil Liberties

Civil rights are different from civil liberties. Traditionally, the concept of civil rights has revolved around the basic right to be free from unequal treatment based on certain protected characteristics (race, gender, disability, etc.), while civil liberties are more broad-based rights and freedoms that are guaranteed at the federal level by the Constitution and other federal law such as fundamental rights including the right to vote, free speech, or the right to privacy.

Questions About Your Civil Rights? Get Legal Help From an Attorney Today

If your civil rights have been violated in any way, you may have a valid legal claim for damages. Important decisions related to your case can be complicated -- including which laws apply to your situation and who's responsible for any harm you suffered. An experienced civil rights attorney can evaluate all aspects of your case and explain the legal options available to you, in order to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.

Learn more about civil rights law on our civil rights attorney answers page.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.

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