Defining Civil Rights
Civil rights are, at the most fundamental level, guarantees by the government that it will treat people equally, particularly people belonging to groups that have historically been denied the same rights and opportunities as others. The proclamation that “all men are created equal” appears in the Declaration of Independence, and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that the federal government treat people equally. According to Chief Justice Earl Warren in the Supreme Court case of Bolling v. Sharpe (1954), “discrimination may be so unjustifiable as to be violative of due process.”
Additional guarantees of equality are provided by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, which states in part that “No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Thus, between the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, neither state governments nor the federal government may treat people unequally unless unequal treatment is necessary to maintain important governmental interests, like public safety.
We can contrast civil rights with civil liberties, which are limitations on government power designed to protect our fundamental freedoms. For example, the Eighth Amendment prohibits the application of “cruel and unusual punishments” to those convicted of crimes, a limitation on government power. As another example, the guarantee of equal protection means the laws and the Constitution must be applied on an equal basis, limiting the government’s ability to discriminate or treat some people differently, unless the unequal treatment is based on a valid reason, such as age. A law that imprisons Asian Americans twice as long as Latinos for the same offense, or a law that says people with disabilities don’t have the right to contact members of Congress while other people do, would treat some people differently from others for no valid reason and might well be unconstitutional. According to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause, “all persons similarly circumstanced shall be treated alike.”
If people are not similarly circumstanced, however, they may be treated differently. Asian Americans and Latinos who have broken the same law are similarly circumstanced; however, a blind driver or a ten-year-old driver is differently circumstanced than a sighted, adult driver.