Civil Rights

Civil rights are legal provisions that stem from notions of equality. If someone has violated your civil rights and discriminated against you, causing injuries, you may have a right to take legal action and to seek to recover damages.

What Are Civil Rights?

Civil rights are protections, liberties, and guarantees enforceable under the law. You can take legal action if someone interferes with your civil rights.[1] Civil rights protect certain characteristics so that it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on race, age, disability, gender, religion, or other factors. Some characteristics are only protected in certain settings, such as in education, employment, or housing.

What is Discrimination?

Discrimination occurs when a person or a group treats an individual differently because of a characteristic, like race or gender. Federal civil rights laws ban discrimination based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Gender
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Genetic information

Protections against these types of discrimination extend to employment, education, housing, and public accommodations under federal laws. Specific executive orders have also provided federal employment protections based on sexual orientation and status as a parent. Some state laws extend protected classes, preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation or weight.

Which Laws Protect Civil Rights?

Several federal laws protect civil rights. Many states also have civil rights laws. The federal laws preempt those set by the state but provide a minimum level of protection. State laws may add additional protections that go beyond federal laws.

For example, New York has one of the most comprehensive sets of civil rights laws in the country. New York law bars discrimination of individuals by sexual orientation.

Some of the federal laws that address civil rights include:

  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963. This law requires employers to provide the same salaries for the same work, regardless of an employee’s gender.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, and national origin. Later laws extended it to include a right to damages in the case of employment discrimination.
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965. This law prohibits discriminatory voting practices, restriction of the right to vote, and denial of the right to vote.
  • Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX. Title IX prevents discrimination by gender in federally-funded education programs. It aimed to improve educational and athletic opportunities for female students.
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Employers may not discriminate against women on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition.
  • Fair Housing Act. This law protects people buying, selling, renting, or financing housing. Discrimination in housing by sex, race, color, religion, disability, family status, and national origin is prohibited.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act. Along with earlier laws, this law prevents discrimination based on disabilities in employment, education, transportation, and public access. Under the ADA, state government employees may not sue for monetary damages, and this act does not apply to the federal government.
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Age Discrimination Act of 1975. These laws prevent discrimination by age in employment and in programs funded by the federal government.

Types of Civil Rights Violations

Not all types of discrimination have been outlawed, and not all settings are protected. According to current federal law, protected classes include those who may be discriminated against because of their:  

  • Age
  • Ethnicity or national origin
  • Race or color
  • Marital status
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Disability

Discrimination by these factors is not barred in all settings. Federal law includes the following settings in which discrimination is not allowed:

  • Education
  • Employment
  • Housing
  • Healthcare
  • Government services and benefits
  • Credit and lending
  • Land use and zoning
  • Transportation
  • Public accommodation
  • Voting

What is a Hate Crime?

A hate crime is a crime motivated by prejudice or bias. Another term for hate crime is a bias-motivated crime. According to federal law, a crime committed against a person because of their race, color, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation is a hate crime.[2]

The victim does not have to belong to a protected class to be part of a hate crime. If the perpetrator perceives them to be in that group, it is a hate crime. These crimes are often violent or involve arson or vandalism. Threatening or conspiring to commit such an act is also considered a hate crime.[2]

How Do I Know if My Rights Have Been Violated?

There are many laws, both federal and state, that protect civil rights. This can make it confusing for the average person to understand a violation of their rights. Reading up on civil rights laws is useful, but if you still aren’t sure you have experienced illegal discrimination, contact a civil rights lawyer.

Some examples of common civil rights violations include:

  • Denial of employment based on a protected factor, such as race or gender
  • Excessive police force
  • Sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Denial of housing based on protected factors, like family situation, race, or religion
  • Voting rights restrictions
  • Hate crimes

What Should I Do if Someone Violated My Civil Rights?

The steps to take after experiencing discrimination or a violation of civil rights depend on the situation. The best thing you can do is talk to a lawyer experienced in civil rights cases. They can help you determine what to do next.

In general, you have three options to remedy the situation and restore your civil right or recover damages:

  1. Negotiating a solution.
    You do not have to take legal action to have your rights restored. You can enter into informal negotiations with the alleged violator, for instance, an employer, to resolve the situation. Even without legal action, having a lawyer to advocate for you is useful.
  2. Filing a government claim.
    Another option is to file a claim with the state or federal government. Again, a lawyer can help you determine where and how to file. The government agency handling your claim will determine if it is valid and if the agency will take steps to assist you.
  3. Filing a lawsuit.
    You also have a right to file a lawsuit against those responsible for violating your rights. Your lawyer will help you file a complaint that outlines the allegations and notifies the defendants. In some cases and states, you may be required to file a claim with the government before filing a private lawsuit to recover damages. For example, you must file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and receive a “Right to Sue” letter before initiating a lawsuit for damages in some cases.

Civil rights are essential protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, federal laws, and state laws. If you feel your rights have been violated, contact a lawyer as soon as possible.

  1. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Civil Rights.
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  2. The United States Department of Justice. (n.d.). Learn About Hate Crimes.
    Retrieved from: