Civil Rights

People in the United States have many civil or constitutional rights that are protected from interference by the government. The Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the national Constitution, is the source of many important rights. See Constitution of the United States. For example, the First Amendment protects against federal, state or local governmental interference with free speech and assembly rights, as well as the right to free exercise of religion without the establishment of any religion. The Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments provide criminal procedure rights. Criminal procedure rights include a right against unreasonable search and seizure by the government, the right against self-incrimination, the right to be represented by a lawyer when charged with a crime, and the right to trial by jury in criminal cases. The Seventh Amendment protects the right to trial by jury in civil cases in federal courts.

The amendments to the Constitution made as a result of the Civil War, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, are another important source of civil rights. The Fourteenth Amendment has become a fountainhead of civil rights because it provides that the government cannot “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Due process rights include the right to marry, to use contraceptives or not, to have an abortion, and to withhold medical treatment even though that will lead to death. Equal protection prohibits various kinds of discrimination.

The Fifteenth Amendment provides that the right to vote shall not be denied on account of race. The Nineteenth Amendment prohibits the denial of the right to vote because of sex. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment provides that people who are at least 18 years of age cannot be denied the right to vote because of age.

Federal civil rights laws provide the means for people to protect their rights by allowing them to bring lawsuits to remedy the violation of those rights. A number of these statutes were passed following the Civil War in order to protect former slaves. The broadest statute, 42 U.S.C. section 1983, authorizes lawsuits against any person for the deprivation of rights, privileges or immunities secured by the federal Constitution or laws, so long as that person acted “under color of” state law, custom or usage. 42 U.S.C. section 1985(3) creates a cause of action for conspiracies to deprive people of their constitutional rights. 42 U.S.C. section 1981 prohibits discrimination because of race in all contracts and 42 U.S.C. section 1982 prohibits discrimination in the sale of property.

The Civil Rights Movement resulted in the passage of more recent civil rights legislation. The most important is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of that act prohibits discrimination in employment. See Employment Relations. Title VI prohibits race discrimination in any program receiving federal financial assistance. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protects the right to vote. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits race discrimination in housing.

Other federal civil rights statutes include the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (prohibits age discrimination in public and private employment), Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs receiving federal funds) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in employment and public accommodations).

The constitutions of the states also protect many civil rights as do many statutes passed by the states, and ordinances enacted by local g

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