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Where Do Civil Rights Come From?

Civil rights usually arise from laws, legislation, and case law prohibiting discrimination and protecting your constitutional rights. There are many legal definitions of discriminatory acts. These originate at the federal level through federal legislation or court decisions.

Examples of federal legislation are the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Other federal acts, supplemented by court decisions, prohibit discrimination in:

  • Voter rights
  • Housing
  • Extension of credit
  • Public education
  • Access to public facilities

Examples of federal court decisions include the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of EducationThat case was the impetus for ridding the nation of racial segregation in public schools. One of its goals was to achieve educational equality for African Americans. The case provided a significant catalyst for the civil rights movement. Other Supreme Court cases have shaped the definition of civil rights violations like sexual harassment and the legality of anti-discrimination remedies like affirmative action programs.

This article first provides an overview of federal legislation protecting civil rights. It also discusses civil rights cases. Finally, we'll address state legislation on the topic of civil rights.

Federal Legislation

Congress enacted many civil rights laws. For example, the Civil Rights Act was a ground-breaking piece of civil rights legislation passed by the federal government in 1964. The Act established many civil rights in various aspects of life. Areas of life affected by the Act include:

  • Public accommodations and public facilities
  • Education
  • Voting
  • Employment

Title VII of the Act granted employees the right to a discrimination-free workplace by prohibiting employers from discriminating on the basis of:

  • Sex (including sexual orientation, gender, pregnancy, and gender identity)
  • Color
  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin

Other examples of federal legislation providing civil rights protection include the following:

  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) confers upon all citizens the full right to vote without discrimination on the basis of race, color, or language
  • The Fair Housing Act (FHA) establishes fair housing rights for all Americans. The FHA bans discrimination in the sale and rental of housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability
  • Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gives people with disabilities the right to equal access to services and benefits of businesses and buildings
  • The Equal Credit Opportunity Act ensures that all consumers have an equal opportunity to get credit

Federal Court Decisions

Civil rights also stem from federal court decisions. This is especially true of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Brown v. The Board of Education is a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision. It invalidated state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and white students and required true desegregation. Brown granted the right to have integrated public schools by overturning Plessy v. Ferguson. That case established the "separate but equal" doctrine.

Another major Supreme Court decision was Obergefell v. Hodges. The Court determined that state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. The Court relied on the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in reaching its decision.

State Legislation

Today, most states have civil rights laws mirroring federal laws. For example, in Texas, Title 2, Chapter 21 of the Labor Code prohibits employment discrimination. Many of the mandates in this Texas law are based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law making employment discrimination unlawful.

State municipalities (such as cities, counties, and towns) can create civil rights laws or ordinances. These may or may not resemble the state's laws. For example, a city may pass legislation requiring domestic partner benefits for city employees and their same-sex partners, even though no such law exists at the state level.

Talk to a Civil Rights Attorney Today

Knowing the origin of the civil rights laws that protect you from discrimination is helpful. Knowing how to deal with the injustice of a civil liberties violation is even more useful. Whether you live in New York or Washington, D.C., knowing your rights is essential.

If you're facing housing discrimination, disability discrimination, or another civil rights violation, talk to a civil rights attorney. You have a right to equal protection of the laws. An attorney can help you determine if you have a valid claim and can help you take the proper steps to address your human rights concerns.

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