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Civil Rights and Discrimination Glossary

As with many other legal topics, the realm of civil rights may seem to have its own language at times. The law concerning civil rights and discrimination is very extensive and complicated. It is helpful to gain insight into this intricate area of law by understanding basic concepts and definitions. Following are some common terms and phrases that often arise in civil rights cases.

ADA: Short for the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA protects persons with disabilities from discrimination in many aspects of life, including employment, education, and access to public accommodations.

ADEA: Short for the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the ADEA is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of age for workers over the age of forty. Only employers with more than twenty employees are required to comply with the ADEA.

AG: Short for "Attorney General," usually referring to the U.S. Attorney General. The AG often becomes involved in civil rights and discrimination claims, as in some situations the U.S. Attorney General's office is entitled to file suit on behalf of a victim of discrimination or harassment.

At-will: A term used to describe many employment relationships. In a nutshell, "at-will" means that an employee can be fired for any reason, or for no reason at all. However, even an at-will employee is entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws. If an employee is terminated in violation of anti-discrimination laws, he or she may be able to successfully bring an action against the former employer.

B.F.O.Q.: Short for the phrase "bona fide occupational qualification," in the employment discrimination context a B.F.O.Q. may absolve an employer from liability for discrimination when there is a legitimate reason to require, for example, that all of the employees working a particular job be of the same sex or age. The successful use of a B.F.O.Q. defense by an employer is rare in discrimination cases.

Civil Rights:"Civil rights" are the rights of individuals to be free from unfair or unequal treatment (discrimination) in a number of settings, when that negative treatment is based on the individual's race, gender, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, or other protected characteristic.

Civil Rights Act of 1964: A federal law that prohibits discrimination in a number of settings: Title I prohibits discrimination in voting; Title II: public accommodations; Title III: Public Facilities; Title IV: Public Education; Title VI: Federally-Assisted Programs; Title VII: Employment.

Civil Rights Movement: Historically, the term "Civil Rights Movement" has referred to efforts toward achieving true equality for African-Americans in all facets of society, but today the term "civil rights movement " is also used to describe the advancement of equality for all people regardless of race, sex, age, disability, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected characteristic.

Complainant: A term used to describe a person bringing a claim for a civil rights violation/discrimination. If the matter proceeds to a court of law, the complainant may begin to be referred to as the plaintiff or the petitioner.

Criminal Civil Rights Violation: A criminal civil rights violation requires that the offender use force or the threat of force against the victim. An assault that is committed because of the victim's race or sexual orientation (i.e. a hate crime) is an example of a criminal civil rights violation.

Discrimination: Discrimination is unfair or unequal treatment of an individual (or group) based on certain legally-protected characteristics -- including age, disability, ethnicity, gender, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation. Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against members of these protected groups in a number of settings, including education, employment, government services, housing, lending, public accommodations, transportation, and voting.

Domestic Partnerships: Legal recognition of unmarried homosexual couples and heterosexual couples, offered by some state and local governments. Domestic partnerships offer some of the same benefits enjoyed by married persons -- including the right to share health insurance coverage, and rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

EEOC: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is a part of the federal government, responsible for investigating and hearing claims of workplace discrimination or harassment. Usually, an alleged victim of workplace discrimination or harassment is required to file a claim with the EEOC prior to initiating a private lawsuit.

Equal Credit Opportunity Act: The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) guarantees all consumers an equal chance to get credit, regardless of sex, marital status, age, race, or other protected factors.

Equal Pay Act: Passed in 1963, the Equal Pay Act is a federal law requiring that employers pay all employees equally for equal work, regardless of whether the employees are male or female.

Equal Rights Amendment (ERA): The proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution was intended to explicitly guarantee equality to all persons, regardless of gender. After passing in Congress in 1972, the amendment did not receive enough votes for ratification by the individual states, and was never signed into law.

Fair Housing: Federal and state "fair housing" laws entitle home buyers, renters, and mortgage borrowers with protections against discrimination based on disability, gender, marital status, race, and sexual orientation (among other things).

FMLA: Short for the Family and Medical Leave Act, which applies to employers who have more than fifty employees on their payroll. The FMLA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who choose to take time off of work to care for certain medical needs of their own, or to care for their family members, including newborn and adopted children.

Hate Crimes: A hate crime is an act of violence or threat of violence that is intended to injure and/or intimidate the victim(s) because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious, sexual orientation, or disability.

Hostile Work Environment: The basis for a sexual harassment claim, a "hostile work environment" is created where the presence of demeaning or sexual photographs, jokes, threats, or overall atmosphere is so pervasive as to create an intimidating and offensive work environment.

Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA): A federal law that guarantees the right to a free and appropriate education to disabled students. The IDEA typically requires an individualized education program (IEP) for each disabled child protected under the Act.

Public Accommodations: Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against certain protected groups in businesses and places that are considered "public accommodations." The definition of a "public accommodation" may vary depending upon the law at issue (i.e. federal or state), and the type of discrimination involved (i.e. race discrimination or disability discrimination). Generally speaking, it may help to think of public accommodations as most (but not all) businesses or buildings that are open to (or offer services to) the general public.

Quid Pro Quo: A Latin phrase meaning "something for something." Quid pro quo is a type of sexual harassment in which the harasser asks for a sexual favor in return for providing an employment benefit, such as a raise, continued employment, or other favorable treatment.

Same-Sex Harassment: The type of sexual harassment that occurs when a male sexually harasses a male, or a female sexually harasses a female.

Same-Sex Marriage: The right of two people of the same sex to legally marry, and to enjoy the legal benefits conferred by marriage. Same-sex marriage has become a topical issue in the arena of civil rights.

Title VII: Short for Title VII to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits, among other things, discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex.

Title IX: Short for Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Whistleblower: A "whistleblower" is an employee who reports a violation of the law by his or her employer. The violation may be against the reporting employee, as with sexual harassment claims, or may be a general violation such as unlawful pollution practices against environmental law. The federal government and many states have laws protecting whistleblowers from retaliation for filing a claim or reporting a violation.

Talk to a Civil Rights Attorney

Navigating through the complexities of civil rights and discrimination laws is quite an undertaking. There are many things to know about what laws are available to protect you. If you suspect that your civil rights have been violated through discrimination or another violation, then you might want to talk to a civil rights attorney. An experienced attorney understands the complex world of civil rights and can help you in regarding your situation.

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