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What Is Civil Rights Law?

Civil rights law refers to a combination of legal principles and regulations that protect citizens from discrimination. Civil rights laws are created to ensure equal treatment in various aspects of life. These laws are designed to protect the fundamental rights and liberties of individuals, preventing unjust treatment based on the following characteristics:

  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Race
  • Color
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion

Civil Rights Legal Issues

Civil rights encompass the basic human rights that all Americans are guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Federal and state law, statutes, administrative regulations, and judicial interpretation have defined and expanded these civil rights over time.

Many civil rights are constitutional rights. For example, the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure is granted explicitly by the U.S. Constitution. Other civil rights have been created by statutes enacted by Congress or state legislatures, such as the right to be free from discrimination based on race, or the right to receive equal pay for equal work. Federal statutes in the area of civil rights law include the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Equal Pay Act, among others. 

Other federal laws, supplemented by court decisions, prohibit discrimination in voting rights, housing, public education, and access to public facilities.

The U.S. Supreme Court, along with its state counterparts, has played a critical role in helping to define civil rights law. The High Court has repeatedly ruled that civil rights imply a right to privacy, even though the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly grant this right.

The many sources of civil rights and the fact that courts often modify or clarify these rights make civil rights law one of the most complex areas of practice, and many civil rights lawyers spend years gaining experience to become effective advocates for your rights.

Examples of Civil Rights Laws

There are many examples of federal civil rights laws that were enacted to address and prevent civil rights violations. These include:

Terms to Know

  • Civil Rights Act: A federal law enacted to enforce and protect basic personal rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution; prohibits discrimination based on race, color, age, or religion
  • Discrimination: Unfair treatment or denial of normal privileges to a person because of their race, age, sex, nationality, or religion; some states may add additional characteristics, such as sexual orientation or political affiliation, to this list
  • Equal Protection Clause: A clause in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits any state from denying any person the equal protection of the law
  • Protected Class: A group of people intended to be protected by a statute passed by the federal or state legislature
  • Disparate Treatment: Treatment of an individual in a less favorable manner than others for discriminatory reasons
  • Hate Crimes: A crime that violates the victim's civil rights and that is motivated by hostility to the victim's race, religion, creed, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender

For more legal definitions, visit the FindLaw Legal Dictionary.

Visit FindLaw's Civil Rights Section, which has articles that discuss:

Get Legal Advice From a Civil Rights Lawyer

In addition to individual lawyers and law firms that take civil rights cases, many nonprofit organizations provide legal services, resources, and even pro bono legal representation to individuals whose civil rights have been violated. Many of these organizations focus on helping particular protected classes.

If you experience a violation of your civil rights, contact a civil rights attorney immediately to protect your rights and explore your legal options. An experienced civil rights attorney will be able to help you make informed decisions about your rights throughout the potential civil rights lawsuit process.

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