What are Civil Rights?

A civil right is one belonging to a person simply by virtue of citizenship, and without regard to gender, race, color, creed, religious or political affiliation. Generally, the civil rights protected in the United States include those set forth in the U.S. Constitution, and those granted by Congress. A civil right is an enforceable privilege, such that the interference with that right entitles the injured party to sue for the loss of any benefits associated with the right. Examples of civil rights that are enforced in the United States include:

  • The entitlements granted in the Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech, press and assembly
  • The rights granted under the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, such as freedom from involuntary servitude, as well as the equal protection of the law
  • Freedom from discrimination, as set forth in state and federal laws, based on gender, age, race, religious affiliation, and, in some jurisdictions, sexual orientation

Civil Rights Actions under the 13th and 14th Amendments

The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery anywhere in the United States and its territories. After the 13th Amendment was ratified, a number of states passed what were called “black codes,” specifically intended to limit the basic rights of the newly freed slaves. The 14th Amendment was a response to the black codes, and prohibited the states from passing laws “that 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.”

Federal Civil Rights Legislation

Subsequent to the ratification of the 14th Amendment, Congress enacted a number of civil rights laws, many of which are still the law of the land today. One such provision, known as a Section 1981 right, prohibits discrimination based on race in the creation and enforcement of contracts, and in the participation in the legal process.

As legal disputes arose regarding the provisions of the 14th Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court consistently held that the provisions of the 14th Amendment only granted Congress with the authority to regulate state (and not individual) actions. Because minorities were still exposed to widespread discrimination that was ostensibly individual (and not subject to government regulation under the provisions of the 14th Amendment), the U.S. Congress took a different approach, passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 sought to regulate the discriminatory acts of individuals—owners of bars, restaurants, motels and hotels, gas stations, and places of entertainment—under the legal theory that Congress was really regulating interstate commerce. The U.S. Supreme Court has generally upheld the Congressional power to regulate individual acts that have a reasonable relationship to interstate commerce.

Human Rights Laws

Human rights law, as distinguished from civil rights law, is generally an international concept, comprised of treaties and agreements between countries. Human rights are considered to be universal, available to all human beings regardless of race, color, creed, gender, religious or political affiliation. Among the rights included under the umbrella of human rights are:

  • The right to life
  • Freedom from slavery
  • Freedom from torture
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of movement
  • Freedom of thought and conscience
  • Freedom of religion
  • The right to a fair trial

There are also many such rights which are the subject of considerable debate, such as the right to bear arms, rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity, and reproductive rights.

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