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. Many statutes have been enacted to prevent discrimination on the basis of a person’s race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and, in some cases, sexual preference.
Congress’s early foray into civil rights legislation was a series of laws—the Reconstruction Civil Rights Acts—enacted in 1866, 1870, 1871, and 1875. These laws guarantee that all persons shall have the same right in every state to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws. Their primary purposes were to codify the rights of former slaves guaranteed under the newly enacted Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and to protect noncitizens and persons not born in the United States within its coverage.
These acts were later codified as sections 1981 through 1985. Section 1981 established the general principle that no person may be denied, on the basis of race, equal protection of the laws. Specifically enumerated rights include the right to contract and to sue, and to give evidence, but this section has also been interpreted to include the right to earn a living, to participate in public benefits programs, and to fair use and access to justice. Section 1982 guarantees the right to inherit, own, and dispose of real and personal property. Section 1983 provides a civil cause of action for denial of equal rights but is limited to public and private individuals acting under the color of state law. There is no remedy under this provision for private discrimination. Section 1985 targets conspiracies to violate civil rights.
The most prominent civil rights legislation since reconstruction is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted in response to pervasive discrimination against minorities and women. Title II proscribes discrimination or segregation based on race, color, religion, or national origin in places of public accommodation; Title III makes such unlawful conduct applicable to state and local entities; Title IV applies to public education; Title V deals with the reauthorization of the Commission on Civil Rights; and Title VI applies to programs or activities receiving federal funds.
Title VII prohibits employment discrimination against applicants and employees on the basis of race or color, religion, sex, and national origin, unless the discrimination is tied to a bona fide occupational qualification or to nonfulfillment of national security requirements. Sex discrimination includes claims of discrimination on the basis of pregnancy as well as claims of sexual harassment. Title VIII, commonly known as the Federal Fair Housing Act, makes it unlawful, with some exceptions, to discriminate in the sale, rental, or advertising of a dwelling on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, or handicap, and it prohibits real estate brokers from discriminating. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination or denial of benefits on the basis of sex under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. It protects employees and students and has been interpreted to encompass sexual harassment claims.
Congress has also passed federal antidiscrimination legislation to protect classes of persons other than women and minorities. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) prohibits employers from discriminating against persons on the basis of age. Based on Congressional findings of marginalization and segregation of the disabled, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination by any federal or federally funded program or activity, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), guaranteeing disabled persons the same rights and benefits as nondisabled citizens.
The ADA addresses discrimination in employment, in the receipt or qualification of public benefits and services, and in the use of public accommodations and services. ‘‘Disabled’’ under the statute means that one or more major life activities are substantially limited by a physical or mental impairment. Major life activities include persons’ abilities to care for themselves, use their hands, walk, see, hear, speak, breathe, learn, and reproduce. The Supreme Court has held that HIV/AIDS is a disability under the ADA. Discrimination within the statute encompasses not making reasonable accommodations for an individual’s disability.
The constitutional authority permitting Congress to enact antidiscrimination laws derives from the commerce clause or the Fourteenth Amendment’s enforcement clause. Recently, however, the Supreme Court has begun to restrict Congress’s power to enact such laws. For example, in 1997, it held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act exceeded the authority of Congress under the Fourteenth Amendment, and, in 2000, the Court held that neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the commerce clause permitted Congress to abrogate state immunity under the ADEA and to enact a civil remedy provision within the Violence Against Women Act. For its part, Congress passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 in order to nullify the effects of various Supreme Court decisions altering the scope and meaning of provisions in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Title IX of the Education Amendments.
The struggle for equality in America suffered many setbacks until the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. After ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, southern states enacted black codes to severely restrict African-American life. In response, Congress enacted the Fourteenth Amendment, but by the end of Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws were in full effect and the Supreme Court had upheld the idea of separate but equal. The 1950s and 1960s finally saw an end to legal discrimination and the birth of a new era for all civil liberties and rights.
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Civil Rights Act of 1964; Religious Freedom Restoration Act; Title VII and Religious Exemptions