Civil rights law focuses on protecting people in society from certain types of discrimination. The sources of civil law in the United States are the United States Constitution, federal and state statutes, judicial opinions, case law, and administrative regulations.

The U.S. Supreme court, along with the state courts, plays an integral part in defining and enforcing civil law. There are many sources of civil law, and civil rights are continually evolving. As a result, the area of civil law is a complex one.

Civil law sets out protected classes of people and ensures that they receive fair treatment in society. When others try to discriminate against these classes of people based on their class characteristics, they have the protection of the law.

Civil rights law recognizes and protects individuals’ civil rights, which is the right to receive equal treatment in settings that include education, public accommodations, housing, and employment. There are many different federal and state civil rights laws to protect different classes of citizens in various contexts.

Civil Rights Terms


Discrimination is denying a person their standard privileges or mistreating them because of their nationality, religion, race, age, or gender. State laws set out different protected classes, and some may include political affiliation or sexual orientation as a basis of discrimination.

Protected Class

Protected classes are created by federal and state law. A protected class is a group of people with a collective particularity and who are protected by law against discrimination. United States federal law confers legal protection from discrimination upon the following protected classes:

  • Sex
  • Race
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Color
  • Creed
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Genetic information
  • Veteran status
  • Pregnancy
  • Familial status

State laws can also provide legal protection to protected classes that are not included by federal law.

Disparate Treatment

Disparate treatment is a discriminatory practice that involves treating a person different or less favorably than other individuals. Treatment is disparate if the affected individual is from a different protected class than their colleagues or co-students.

Equal Protection Clause

The Equal Protection Clause is a clause in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution that took effect in 1868. According to this clause, no state may deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a landmark federal law and a significant legislative achievement of the civil rights movement. This act ended segregation in public places and banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.

The Civil Rights Act prohibits the use of federal funds for discriminatory programs and authorizes the Department of Education to take steps in desegregating schools. The act also prohibits the unequal application of voting requirements.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 consists of 11 sections.

Long Title

“An act to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States of America to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes.”

Title I

Title I prohibits the unequal application of the voter registration processes. This section requires that all voting procedures should be uniform, regardless of the voter’s race. Title I does not do away with literacy tests, however.

Title II

Title II forbids discrimination in accommodations that take part in interstate commerce. These accommodations include hotels, motels, theatres, and restaurants.

Title III

According to Title III of the Civil Rights Act, no state or municipal government may bar access to public facilities based on an individual’s race, religion, or gender.

Title IV

Title IV provides federal enforcement for public school desegregation.

Title V

This section gives the Civil Rights Commission the right to investigate allegations of discrimination and act on them if necessary.

Title VI

Title VI prohibits discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds. According to this section, any government agency that violates Section VI in the course of their service delivery or administration will lose federal funding.

Title VII

In terms of Title VII, no employer may discriminate against employees based on their race, gender, religion, or national origin. This section also protects individuals who associate with other races, for example, a person who is in an interracial marriage.

The protection that Title VII offers is not available to people with communist associations or communist organizations. This title allows for partial discrimination on the basis of gender if the employer can prove that the employee’s gender will prevent them from carrying out a job properly.

Title VIII

Title VIII creates a voter registration record for use by the Commission on Civil Rights.

Title IX

This section refers to all civil rights trials with all-white juries to the federal courts to ensure that these trials are fair.

Title X

Title X creates community relations services to investigate community disputes and discrimination.

Title XI

Title XI sets out the penalties for violating the provisions of the Civil Rights Act

Civil Rights Act of 1991

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 is federal civil rights legislation that Congress passed as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 1991 CRA does not replace the previous law but strengthens it in terms of employer liability.

The 1991 CRA also modified the substantive and procedural rights that employees have under federal law. This law offers a trial by jury option in discrimination cases and allows for the collection of emotional distress damages.

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, race and gender can be employment factors. The 1991 CRA amended this section to make any discriminatory consideration in employment activities illegal.

This amendment opened the door for mixed-motive lawsuits. If an employer initiates action against an employer for alleged discrimination, the employer can lose the case, even if they can prove that other factors were involved.

For example, a construction company may list specific height and physical strength requirements in their job postings for safety reasons. If these requirements exclude women from the application processes, applicants can sue the company for damages in terms of the 1991 CRA.

What is the Difference Between Civil Rights and Constitutional Rights?

Civil rights are an individual’s right to be an active part of a society and economy without discrimination or oppression. Constitutional rights are liberties that are granted to individuals by a country’s constitution. In the United States, civil rights are primarily integrated into the constitution, so civil rights and constitutional rights are overlapping.

Another difference between constitutional and civil rights is that the former addresses the treatment of the individual by the state. For example, the constitution protects people from unreasonable search and seizure and unjustified prosecution. The state may also not deprive individuals of their lives, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness without justification.

Civil rights, on the other hand, deal with the treatment of the individual by the government and other people based on characteristics like race and gender. The Supreme Court and the judicial system enforce the body of civil rights. If a person’s civil rights are violated, they may sue in civil court and collect monetary damages.

Prominent Civil Rights Legislation


Legislation that prohibits discrimination in all areas against people based on race, religion, sex, and national origin include:

  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1991
  • S. Code Title 42, Chapter 21 — Civil Rights Title 42, Chapter 21 of the U.S. Code
  • Articles and Amendments
  • Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act
  • The Equal Credit Opportunity Act
  • The Fair Housing Act


The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits discrimination based on age in programs that receive federal assistance. These programs pertain to education, healthcare, housing, welfare, food stamps, and rehabilitation.


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974 is the first legislation that was passed in the United States on disability civil rights. In terms of this section, no person may discriminate against disabled people in programs that receive federal financial assistance.

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people with real and perceived disabilities in all settings, including employment, government, public accommodations, transportation, and commercial facilities.

Providing the disabled with access to services and locations is a crucial component of disabled civil rights. The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 deals with the provision of air transportation to disabled people. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1986 states that all buildings and facilities that are built and managed with federal funds after 1969 must be accessible by disabled individuals.

Voting Rights

The Twenty-fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution banned poll taxes. Earlier legislation instituted poll taxes to discourage poor individuals from voting. Poll taxes had a disproportional effect on minorities and interfered with the civil right of voting.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 forbids the restriction of a person’s right to vote as well as discriminatory voting practices. The National Voter Registration Act also sets out procedures to increase the number of eligible voters in national office elections.

Institutionalized Persons

The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act protects the constitutional rights of persons in institutions like government-run nursing homes and prisons.


The Equal Pay Act of 1963 addresses a gender pay gap and requires employers to pay all employees equally for the same amount of work, regardless of the employee’s gender.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act prevents discrimination against employees and job applicants over the age of 40. Applications of this act include compensation, employment conditions, and advancement opportunities.

According to the Family and Medical Leave Act, employees also have the right to take time off work so they can care for ill family members, newborn children, or newly adopted children. In terms of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, female workers who are pregnant also have the same rights as their colleagues in terms of appointments and job advancements.


Title IX is legislation that forbids discrimination in institutions of learning and requires colleges to provide equal intercollegiate opportunities to men and women.

Prominent Supreme Court Civil Rights Cases

Like legislation, precedence from case law is also a source of civil law. Notable civil rights cases include:

Shelley v. Kramer (1948)

A property association may not create a restrictive covenant that prevents people from a specified race to own property.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

The court found that separate but equal facilities are discriminatory, and facilities should be equally accessible to people from all races.

Pittsburgh Press Co. v. Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations

The Supreme Court found that it is discriminatory for companies to create separate job postings that are based on gender. This case was significant as even the federal government advertised jobs for specific genders.

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

This case upheld the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit a hotel from refusing black customers to rent their rooms.

Loving v. Virginia (1967)

In this case, the court found that banning interracial marriage constitutes a violation of civil rights.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978)

In this case, the court found that affirmative action that uses a quota system is unconstitutional. In Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, however, the court found that affirmative action is permissible if they involve an individualized applicant review.

Civil Rights Law is Always Evolving

Civil Rights Law is continually evolving to protect the rights of people in a changing society. Economic and technological developments and changes in social behavior require a consistent assessment of civil rights law. Passing new legislation and bringing civil rights cases before the court is essential to ensure that civil rights law offers protection against discrimination and unfair treatment.

Civil Rights Law as State Law

Civil rights law is widely regarded to be a federal matter in the United States. The federal government passed significant civil rights laws that provide protected classes with legal protection against discrimination and unfair treatment.

Like the federal government, states also have civil rights laws that are congruent with federal legislation. In some states, agencies investigate allegations of discrimination, especially in employment and educational settings. These agencies may also provide legal assistance to help a person claim damages as a result of discrimination.

Civil rights practitioners have several means available to enforce civil rights laws. These avenues include federal and state agency investigations and federal and state court actions. If federal law doesn’t have an applicable provision, state legislation may offer a suitable remedy for discrimination.

Civil Rights Practitioners

Civil rights attorneys can work in various settings and capacities. Most civil rights practitioners have the right of appearance before the Supreme Court, and they consult with clients in a practice setting. A civil rights practitioner can also work for federal or state investigative agencies that enforce civil rights law in their area of jurisdiction.

Most prominent law firms employ practitioners who can represent clients in discrimination claims or other civil rights matters.


Civil rights law ensures the equal treatment of individuals and protects them against discrimination in various forms and settings. There are several sources of civil rights law, including the United States Constitution, legislation, and case law.

The most significant civil rights legislation includes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. These two laws, along with other legislation, prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, nationality, age, and disability.

The 1964 CRA’s provisions are primitive, but they form the basis of the United States’ civil rights law. They are also amended by the 1991 CRA and other modern legislation. Discrimination laws are also significant sources of civil rights law, and there are laws for various settings, including:

  • Education
  • Government-run institutions
  • Voting
  • Employment
  • Housing
  • Welfare
  • Rehabilitation

Case law is another crucial source of civil rights law. Prominent civil rights cases include:

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
  • Plessy v. Furguson (1896)
  • Powell v. Alabama (1932)
  • Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)
  • Heart of Atlanta Motel Inc. v. United States (1964)
  • Loving v. Virginia (1967)
  • Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978)
  • Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)

Civil law is always developing at the hand of discrimination cases. These investigations and court cases are crucial to ensure that civil rights law develops along with changes in society.

Federal law is an integral part of civil rights law. However, civil rights can also be state law. States can pass their own civil rights laws in alignment with federal law, and they can form agencies to investigate claims of discrimination.

Civil rights practitioners enforce civil rights law, and most of them can appear in front of the Supreme Court. These practitioners may work in practices or for investigative agencies.