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A Brief Background on Civil Rights

A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury. Examples of civil rights are freedom of speech, press, assembly, the right to vote, freedom from involuntary servitude, and the right to equality in public places. Discrimination occurs when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of their membership in a particular group or class. Statutes have been enacted to prevent discrimination based on a persons race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin and in some instances sexual preference.

The most important expansion of civil rights in the United States was the enactment of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States. In response to the 13th Amendment, various states enacted "black codes" which were intended to limit the civil rights of the newly free slaves. In 1868 the 14th Amendment was passed to counter the "black codes" and ensure that no state "shall make or enforce any law 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." Congress was also given the power by section five of the Fourteenth Amendment to pass any laws needed for its enforcement. During the "reconstruction era" that followed Congress enacted numerous civil rights statutes. Many of these statutes 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. Other statutes, derived from acts of the reconstruction era, that protect against discrimination include: Civil Action For Deprivation of Rights; Conspiracies to Interfere With Civil Rights; Conspiracy Against Rights of Citizens; Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law; The Jurisdictional Statue for Civil Rights Cases; Peonage Abolished.

The most prominent civil rights legislation since reconstruction is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Decisions of the Supreme Court, at the time limited Congressional enforcement of the 14th Amendment to state action. (Since 1964 the Supreme Court has expanded the reach of the 14th Amendment in some situations to individuals discriminating on their own). Therefore, in order to reach the actions of individuals, Congress, using its power to regulate interstate commerce, enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under . Discrimination based on "race, color, religion, or national origin" in public establishments that had a connection to interstate commerce or was supported by the state is prohibited. Public establishments include places of public accommodation (e.g., hotels, motels, 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. A single Supreme Court ruling can change the very nature of a right throughout the entire country. Supreme Court decisions can also affect the manner in which Congress enacts civil rights legislation, as occurred with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal courts were/are crucial in mandating and supervising school desegregation programs and other programs established to rectify state or local discrimination.

State constitutions, statutes and municipal ordinances provide further protection of civil rights.

The existence of civil rights and liberties are recognized internationally by numerous agreements and declarations. Often these rights are included in agreements in which nations pledge themselves to the general protection of Human Rights. The United States has recently adhered to the most notable international agreement on civil rights: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Excerpted from The Legal Information Institute



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