A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury.
Discrimination occurs when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of the individual’s membership in a particular group or class. Various jurisdictions have enacted statutes to prevent discrimination based on a person’s race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and in some instances sexual orientation.
Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
People often confuse civil rights and civil liberties. Civil rights refer to legal provisions that stem from notions of equality. Civil rights are not in the Bill of Rights; they deal with legal protections. For example, the right to vote is a civil right. A civil liberty, on the other hand, refers to personal freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights. For example, the First Amendment’s right to free speech is a civil liberty.
The Reconstruction Era was the period following the Civil War in which the federal government attempted to pass laws aimed at helping victims of slavery, primarily African-Americans.
The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution constituted the largest expansion of civil rights in the history of the United States. The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed involuntary servitude. The Fourteenth Amendment made it illegal for a state to pass laws “which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States. [or] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, [or] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Fifteenth Amendment prohibits the U.S. or any state to deny a citizen the right to vote based on that person’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” These Amendments are called the Reconstruction Amendments because they were passed during the Reconstruction Era.
Some Reconstruction Laws
During the Reconstruction Era, Congress enacted numerous civil rights statutes. Many of these are still in force today and protect individuals from discrimination and from the deprivation of their civil rights. Section 1981 of Title 42 (Equal Rights Under the Law) protects individuals from discrimination based on race in making and enforcing contracts, participating in lawsuits, and giving evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Other statutes, derived from acts of the reconstruction era, that protect against discrimination include: Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights (See 42 U.S.C. § 1983); Conspiracies to Interfere With Civil Rights (See 42 U.S.C. § 1985); Conspiracy Against Rights of Citizens (See 18 U.S.C. § 241); Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law, (See 18 U.S.C. § 242); The Jurisdictional Statue for Civil Rights Cases (See 28 U.S.C. § 1443); and Peonage Abolished (See 42 U.S.C. § 1994).
Civil Rights Act of 1964
The most prominent civil rights legislation since Reconstruction is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Congress, using its power to regulate interstate commerce, enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under Title 42, Chapter 21 of the United States Code. Discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” in public establishments that have a connection to interstate commerce or are supported by the state is prohibited. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000a. Public establishments include places of public accommodation (e.g., hotels, motels, and trailer parks), restaurants, gas stations, bars, taverns, and places of entertainment in general. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation also declared a strong legislative policy against discrimination in public schools and colleges which aided in desegregation. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination where the employer is engaged in interstate commerce. Congress has passed numerous other laws dealing with employment discrimination.
The judiciary, most notably the Supreme Court, plays a crucial role in interpreting the extent of the civil rights, as a single Supreme Court ruling can alter the recognition of a right throughout the nation. The federal courts have been crucial in mandating and supervising school desegregation programs and other programs established to rectify state or local discrimination.
The Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1964, banned poll taxes. A poll tax is a tax imposed on anybody who votes at a polling place. Poll taxes discouraged poorer citizens from voting, disproportionately affecting minorities. As such, poll taxes interfere with the civil right of voting.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is codified in 52 U.S. Code § 10101. The act states: “All citizens of the United States who are otherwise qualified by law to vote at any election by the people . . . shall be entitled and allowed to vote at all such elections, without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Civil Rights Act of 1968
State Civil Rights Efforts
In addition to federal guarantees, some states provide further protection of civil rights. New York’s New York State Human Rights Law is one such example.
Numerous international agreements and declarations recognize human rights. The United States has signed some of these agreements, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
As an example, Florida has its felon disenfranchisement law included in its state Constitution. As such, in order to change the policy, the state would need to pass a state constitutional amendment.
For more on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, see these articles from a Boston University Law Review Symposium.
For more on the Civil Rights Act of 1968, see this Villanova Law Review article.