Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
To discriminate against an individual is to treat someone differently, usually in a negative way, due to a given characteristic. Federal law prohibits discrimination by employers and many other entities on the basis of skin color, race, gender, national origin, disability, age, pregnancy, medical background, religion, or even genetic information. Some states have passed laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, weight, and other attributes. This section covers the various types of discrimination banned by federal law, the agencies that enforce each law and how to file a claim, in-depth information about specific scenarios involving discrimination, and more.
In order for discrimination to be legally actionable it must be based on one of a number of protected classes of people and in a context that is covered by the legislation and federal authority.
Basis of Discrimination
In order for discrimination to trigger the protection of federal law it must be directed against an individual on account of their skin color, race, gender, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion, or a limited number of other categories. Laws prohibiting discrimination based on race are strongest and have been on the books for the longest period of time. Other categories have been introduced more recently and may be expansive or restrictive depending on the category and context.
A combination of legislation and Supreme Court interpretation of existing laws have led to an expansion of civil rights to include groups that were not previously protected. Transgender and homosexual victims were not, at one time, protected by anti-discrimination laws. In addition to extending protection to these individuals; legislative changes now also protect those perceived to belong to one of the enumerated groups by their persecutor. For example, if someone was denied a promotion at their job because they are believed to be homosexual they would now have an actionable claim of discrimination against their employer, even if they are actually heterosexual.
Context of Discrimination
There are some contexts in which discrimination does not result in litigation. Someone may discriminate as an individual in a social context without exposing themselves to a lawsuit, though they may lose some friends.
For discrimination to be legally actionable it must be directed at one of the recognized protected categories of people and must also take place in one of a number of settings such as in employment, education, housing, government benefits or services, health care, land use and zoning, lending and credit, public accommodations, transportation, or voting.
Prohibitions on discrimination are scattered throughout the law. However, most bars to discrimination originate in the U.S. Code Title 42, Chapter 21, where a number of civil rights acts by the federal government have been collected, including the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. Other significant federal laws include the Fair Housing Act, The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. Individual states have also enacted laws to protect the civil rights of their citizens, though the scope of those protected and the context in which they are protected varies greatly from state-to-state.
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