What Is Civil Rights Law?

Civil rights law is the area of law that gives people in society the right to be free from certain types of discrimination.

It’s the area of law that gives people the right to equal and fair treatment in society.

Civil rights law creates protected classes of people.

It gives people in these classes the protection of the law when others try to discriminate against them based on class characteristics.

What Are Civil Rights Laws?

Civil rights laws are federal and state laws that apply to everyone in society, and they prevent discrimination based on protected characteristics.

For example, federal civil rights laws prevent public businesses like restaurants and hotels from treating people differently on the basis of race.

If a business that serves the public refuses to serve someone on the basis of race, they’re in violation of U.S. civil rights laws.

There are many different civil rights laws that protect several different classes of citizens in a variety of contexts.

Civil rights laws work together to ensure that all persons in society are treated equally and fairly.

Categories of Civil Rights Law

Most people know that race and gender are two protected classes of civil rights laws.

But those are only some of the classes of people that have civil rights protections.

Some of the protected classes in U.S. civil rights law include:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Color
  • National Origin
  • Religion
  • Marital Status

Civil rights didn’t develop all at once in the United States.

They’re the product of the U.S. Constitution, federal legislation, state legislation, and court interpretations of law.

Are Civil Rights and Constitutional Rights the Same Thing?

Civil rights and constitutional rights are overlapping areas of law.

Constitutional rights are rights granted to every American in the U.S. Constitution.

For example, everyone in society has the right to be free from unlawful search and seizure and the excessive use of police force.

Everyone has the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Due process of law is another important constitutional right.

Due process means that the government can’t take away your money or property or put you in jail without giving you a fair opportunity to have your side of the story heard in court.

While civil rights also concern the rights of people to be free in society, civil rights have more to do with discrimination against various groups in society.

Constitutional rights have to do with the right of someone to be free from unfair treatment by the government.

Civil rights have to do with both the government and private parties discriminating against people based on characteristics like race and gender.

While constitutional rights and civil rights often intertwine, they aren’t exactly the same areas of law.

Major Civil Rights Laws

Some of the most notable U.S. civil rights laws include:

  • The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 – Prohibits discrimination on the basis of age by programs that get federal financial assistance
  • Age Discrimination and Employment Act – Employers can’t discriminate against applicants and employees who are 40 years old or older
  • Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 – Airlines must accommodate people with disabilities in air transportation
  • Americans with Disabilities Act – Prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in a variety of areas of public accommodation including employment and education
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Landmark legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in a wide range of public accommodations
  • Civil Rights Act of 1991 – Enhances the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to allow civil claims for damages for intentional employment discrimination
  • The Equal Credit Opportunity Act – Bans discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics when it comes to issuing credit
  • Equal Pay Act of 1963 – Prohibits discriminatory pay in the workplace based on gender
  • Fair Housing Act – People and organizations may not discriminate on the basis of a protected status when it comes to the sale, rental, or financing of housing
  • Title IX – Prohibits discrimination in education; Title IX legislation requires colleges to offer equal opportunities for men and women to participate in intercollegiate athletics
  • Voting Rights Act of 1965 – Prohibits refusing someone as a voter based on discrimination

Top U.S. Supreme Court Civil Rights Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court rules on civil rights cases frequently.

Here are some notable civil rights cases:

Heart of Atlanta Motel Inc v. United States (1964)

Upheld the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as enforceable.

Prohibited a large, Atlanta motel from refusing to allow black customers to rent rooms.

Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp (1971)

A company can’t discriminate against a woman who has a young child unless they also reject men for the same reasons.

Pittsburgh Press Co. v. Pittsburg Commission on Human Relations

Prohibits companies from creating separate job postings based on gender.

At the time the Supreme Court decided this case, even federal jobs were posted as either for men or for women only.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

Overruled Plessy v. Ferguson to state that separate but equal facilities are discriminatory.

Schools and other organizations must give people from all races equal access.

Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)

A property association can’t create a restrictive covenant that prevents people of a certain race from owning property.

Loving v. Virginia (1967)

A ban on interracial marriage violates civil rights.

Regents of the University of California v Bakke (1978)

Affirmative action is unconstitutional if it uses a quota system.

But, the Court in Grutter v. Bollinger, in 2003, ruled that affirmative action programs are okay as long as they’re part of an individualized, holistic review of applicants.

Civil Rights Law Is Developing

The practice of civil rights law is growing and changing.

Society’s understanding of civil rights grows and changes.

Civil rights attorneys are a part of the process as they work to pass new legislation and bring new cases in order to further society’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of protected classes.

Civil Rights Law Is Also State law

While most people think of civil rights law as being a federal issue in the United States, most states also have civil rights laws.

Some states even have their own agencies that investigate allegations of discrimination in employment and education.

Attorneys who practice civil rights law should be sure to examine all avenues for enforcement of civil rights laws including state and federal agency investigations, state court actions, and federal court actions.

Part of the successful practice of civil rights law is knowing where and how to take action to enforce civil rights.

Who Practices Civil Rights Law?

Civil rights laws can be enforced throughout the United States.

Attorneys who enforce civil rights law may appear before the U.S. Supreme Court, or they may work in a small town.

They may work for public interest groups on a large scale, or they may work for individual clients in a solo practice.

Civil rights attorneys also include the attorneys who work for the investigative agencies that enforce civil rights laws.

For example, civil rights attorneys may investigate allegations of civil rights violations for the U.S. Department of Education.

They might work in the same capacity for a similar state organization.

Because a lot of civil rights cases are landmark cases that impact the entire United States, many high-profile organizations and law firms handle civil rights cases.

The United States Supreme Court frequently hears civil rights cases, so attorneys who are skilled and trained to practice civil rights law may argue before the nation’s highest court.

On the other hand, an attorney might represent a sole client in an employment discrimination claim in a small town.

Some attorneys focus solely on civil rights cases, while other attorneys might handle an occasional case as part of a broader, civil law practice.

Civil rights attorneys live and work throughout the United States.

Why Become a Civil Rights Lawyer?

Attorneys who want to change society have the opportunity to do so through practicing civil rights law.

A single civil rights case can greatly impact the entire United States with the stroke of a pen.

Civil rights lawyers must work skillfully and diligently to bring about this change.

Civil rights lawyers also help individuals who are suffering at the hands of illegal discrimination.

For lawyers who want to help people who need advocacy and for lawyers who enjoy handling widely impactful cases, civil rights law provides an exciting and fulfilling career choice.

Chelsea Wilson

About Chelsea Wilson

Chelsea Wilson is the Community Relations Manager for Washington University School of Law’s distance learning LLM degree program, which provides foreign trained attorneys with the opportunity to earn a Master of Laws degree from a top-tier American university from anywhere in the world.

3 Responses to What Is Civil Rights Law?

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    David Lloyd #

    The legacy of civil rights law continues to inspire new generations of lawyers and activists, highlighting the ongoing importance of defending and upholding these rights.

  2. Avatar
    Eva Midgley #

    Civil rights law often intersects with other legal areas, such as constitutional law and employment law, offering diverse and intellectually stimulating career opportunities.

  3. Avatar
    Cheryl Clifton #

    One of the most impactful aspects of civil rights law is its ability to bring about significant societal change, shaping the landscape of our nation’s history.

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