Photo of the preamble to constitution the United States of America

What is Civil Rights Law?

Civil rights are basic human rights established and guarded by the U.S. Constitution, and protecting these is an essential part of the democratic values of the United States and of civil rights attorneys. As defined by the constitution, these rights refer to statutory and court-mandated protections from discrimination and other forms of unequal treatment on the basis of national origin, race, gender, age, and other such characteristics. Examples of protected civil rights include, among others, voting rights; protection against discrimination due to sexual orientation, age, race, gender or religion; and freedom of speech.

Over the years, there have been quite a few federal laws and amendments to the Constitution enacted to better protect our personal rights, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, Civil Rights Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Equal Pay Act. Though the timeline cataloging the evolution of US civil rights is one the goes back… well, as far as the US does, the six following acts are generally considered the most important recent moments of civil rights history. If you find yourself in need of defending your civil rights, these may help define your case:

Age Discrimination Act of 1975. Implemented the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of age in HHS (Human Health Services)-funded programs and activities. Under its commonly used name, the Age Act, recipients may not exclude, deny, or limit services to, or otherwise discriminate against, persons on the basis of age. Unfortunately, the Age Act cannot prohibit employment discrimination in private companies, nor can it necessarily override distinctions in federal, state, or local statutes and ordinances

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). ADEA prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance, in reaction to rising productivity and affluence in companies that often disadvantaged older workers in their efforts to retain employment. The Act specifically protects applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or extraneous conditions employment, however, it does technically protect employees of all ages; essentially, “age discrimination” is relative to the spectrum of ages in a workplace. Additionally, it protects the rights of those employees to not face “harassment” for their age, generally defined as offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s age and/or their abilities. The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  If you’ve ever filled out a job application, the ADA disclaimer should be familiar: the 1990 act prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, as well as hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. Additionally, employers are legally required to make the required workplace modifications–such as physical changes like wheelchair ramps, implementing assistive technologies such as screen reading software, providing accessible communications, such as a sign language interpreter, or altering company policies to allow service animals into the workplace–to accommodate employees who require ADA benefits.

Civil Rights Act of 1964. The landmark civil rights and US labor law case, that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, these laws ensured constitutional rights for African Americans and other minorities. Under the Civil Rights Act, segregation based on any of the preceding terms, and more, were banned at all places of public accommodation, including courthouses, parks, restaurants, theaters, sports arenas and hotels. Additionally, the act forbade the use of federal funds for any discriminatory program, to encourage the integration of schools.

Fair Housing Act (FHA). Like the Civil Rights Act, FHA aims to eliminate discrimination based upon their background in any housing related activities. The belief is that every class of people has the right to buy, rent or obtain a mortgage without being discriminated against because of their race, national origin, or otherwise of their “character”, as perceived by the landlord/s. Additionally, the act outlaws a person’s right to make discriminatory statements or advertise their property indicating a preference for a person with a certain background, or excluding a protected class. This applies to those who are otherwise exempt from FHA, such as owner-occupied four unit homes.

Voting Rights Act of 1965. Still facing tremendous voting obstacles, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic restrictions to deny them the right to vote, minorities  risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote.  As the Civil Rights Act proved incapable of exhaustively protecting the voting rights of marginalized groups, the Voting Rights proposition was enacted to conclusively overcome the resistance by state officials to enforcement of the 15th Amendment. The Act contains numerous provisions that regulate election administration, with “general provisions” prohibiting every state and local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities.

What Should I Do if My Civil Rights Have Been Violated?

If you have been the victim of a civil rights violation, there are steps in place that you can rely on to guide you through the process of making sure your mistreatment does not continue or go unpunished and your situation is improved, including:

  1. If you feel safe doing so, inform those who have violated your rights that their treatment of you is unacceptable.
  2. If the offense took place at work or involves some other type of organization with a governing body, such as a school, club or charitable organization, find out how to properly file a complaint internally and do so.
  3. If you are unsatisfied with the outcome of the internal complaint, filing a complaint with a state or federal agency would be your next step. For instance, if the violation involved your job, then you would contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
  4. If you exhaust all of the administrative agency’s options for settling your complaint, your final step would be to contact a qualified civil rights attorney and file a lawsuit.

Lawyers That Handle Civil Rights Cases

While first and foremost civil rights litigation is about defending your personal rights, it is also a way to help and/or get justice for other victims who have faced or will face similar mistreatment. If you think that your rights have been violated, contact a consumer rights lawyer that can answers your questions and get you the help that you need. Many lawyers offer free consultations, and there are statute of limitations to consider in some cases. Thus, it is in your best interest to contact a lawyer as soon as possible.

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