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Civil Rights Basics

Welcome to FindLaw's Civil Rights Basics section, which introduces civil rights and related laws. "Civil rights" refers to statutory and court-mandated protections from discrimination. It includes other forms of unequal treatment based on national origin, race, gender, and other characteristics. Civil rights also provide freedom from cruel or excessive force by police officers or other government agents. Articles and resources include:

What Are Civil Rights?

Many people interchange "civil rights" and "civil liberties," but they mean different things. “Civil rights" refer to the rights of all people to equal protection of the laws and due process of law. These rights protect people from discrimination based on race, religion, and other characteristics. They are often laid out in federal laws like the Civil Rights Act.

Civil liberties are specific freedoms granted under the law, including the Bill of Rights. For example:

  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of assembly
  • Freedom of religion

If the police place you under arrest after you write an opinion piece on the newspaper's website, that is a civil liberties violation. The arrest violates your First Amendment free speech rights even if you defamed someone in the article.

A civil rights violation is different. For example, if a landlord refuses to lease an apartment to an Asian family, that is a civil rights violation under the Fair Housing Act.

Local and state governments cannot places limits on civil rights that the federal government grants. But depending on the jurisdiction, regional or state governments may expand on civil rights. State laws and local ordinances often offer more protections.

The Basic Purpose of Civil Rights

Civil rights have a lot in common with human rights. Both types of rights exist to help people have access to specific freedoms. The main difference is the source of the rights. Basic human rights stem from just being a person. They are fundamental rights, such as voting rights and the right to a fair trial. The rights are universal and not tied to one country.

Civil rights tend to come from written laws. For example, American civil rights come from the U.S. Constitution. Civil rights protect you from discrimination and unfair treatment by the government.

Discrimination Overview

One of the main functions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is to prevent discrimination. The Act aims to shield minorities and marginalized people against discrimination in:

  • Employment
  • Housing
  • Education
  • Public accommodations

To discriminate is to mistreat someone based on a particular characteristic. This characteristic could be a trait such as skin color or sexual orientation. One of these characteristics is being a protected class member under specific laws. For instance, African Americans belong to a protected class. And they may file federal claims as a member of this group if someone discriminates against them due to race or skin color.

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

  • Age — The law protects employees over 40 from age-related discrimination.
  • Color — Someone's race may be less of a factor than skin color or tone, so this covers such scenarios.
  • Disability — The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the rights of the disabled.
  • Genetic information — The Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) bars genetics-based discrimination. It prevents employers and others from using DNA or genetic markers to screen people.
  • National origin — It is unlawful to discriminate based on national origin. It may also include ethnicity. It makes no difference if the perpetrator is mistaken about the target's nationality. Similarly, the ADA prohibits discrimination against people merely perceived to have a disability.
  • Race — Racial discrimination against African Americans was the primary motivation for the Civil Rights Act.
  • Religion — Employers may require employees to make certain concessions if they can prove a compelling reason. For instance, fire departments can require men who grow beards for religious reasons to shave since facial hair may compromise the effectiveness of ventilators.
  • Sex/gender — Includes protections for women, men, and intersex people. "Because of sex" encompasses gender, gender identity, and transgender status.
  • Sexual Orientation — Protects LGBTQ people, including, but not limited to, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and pansexual people, from discrimination.

Examples of Civil Rights Violations

How can you recognize when someone violates your civil rights? Remember that the wrongdoer is generally a government actor. Most civil rights laws apply to state and federal employers, public schools, law enforcement officers, and other government officials.

But, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act extends federal civil rights protections to actions by private employers as well. There are also federal civil rights laws relating to housing.

Here are examples of civil rights violations:

  • Your employer fires you, demotes you, or gives you more job duties because of your sexual orientation or race.
  • Your employer retaliates against you because of your reported workplace harassment or discrimination.
  • Your child's school engages in segregation based on gender.

If someone violates another's civil rights, the victim has a claim to file legal action. Consult with a civil rights attorney if you suspect that you have a claim.

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

Learn About Civil Rights Basics

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