Civil Rights

HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CIVIL RIGHTS IN THE U.S.Immigrant man holding american flag

What are “civil rights”?

When people talk about civil rights, this generally includes fundamental rights we have as individuals to participate in society as equals. More specifically, it includes concepts such as freedom of expression, free exercise of religion, voting rights, rights against law enforcement overreach, “innocent until proven guilty,” and rights against unfair discrimination.

Many of these rights come from the “Bill of Rights” (first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution), other parts of the Constitution, as well as laws passed by Congress and the states.

Here are the various types of civil rights and what is protected:

1. Free Speech and Expression

2. Religious rights

You have the right to freely exercise your religion, and the government may not force any religion upon you.1U.S. Constitution, 1st amendment This is known as a “wall of separation between church and state.”

3. Rights against law enforcement overreach

Generally you have the right against the government performing unreasonable searches of you and unreasonable taking of your property.2U.S. Constitution, 4th amendment See Police Conduct for more.

4. “Innocent until proven guilty”

This is also known as the right to “due process of law,” meaning that the government may not take certain actions against you until they prove in a fair and independent judicial proceeding that you have committed a crime.3U.S. Constitution, 5th amendment To ensure that the process against you is fair, you also have the right to be provided a defense attorney free of charge (in certain circumstances)4Gideon case, right to a jury trial5U.S. Constitution, 6th amendment, and the right to not have to say things that may incriminate you.6U.S. Constitution, 5th amendment

5. No cruel and unusual punishment

You have the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.7U.S. Constitution, 8th amendment

6. Citizenship

In general, every person born on U.S. soil is a citizen of the United States, and others have the right to become citizens through a process known as “naturalization.” The government generally may not strip citizenship from any person, except in limited circumstances (including treason).8U.S. Constitution, 14th amendmentAfroyim v Rusk (1967); Immigration and Nationality Act Sec 349

7. Voting Rights

8. Rights against unfair discrimination

In general, individuals in the U.S. are protected from many forms of discrimination, on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and certain other characteristics. See below for some specifics. Many states go further and provide even stronger protections than the federal government. See Civil Rights in California.

Race & Racial issues

  • In general, the government may not discriminate on the basis of race.9U.S. Constitution, equal protection clause of 14th amendment, incorporated by Supreme Court into 5th amendment to apply to federal government
  • Employers may not take any discriminatory actions against employees or prospective employees on the basis of their race.10Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Restaurants, shops, etc. cannot refuse to serve people on the basis of their race11Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Certain types of “affirmative action” in college admissions is constitutional12Abigail Fisher v Univ of Texas
  • Racial gerrymandering (drawing voter district lines on the basis of race) is unconstitutional13Shaw v Reno (1993)

Gender

  • In general, the government may not discriminate on the basis of gender or sex.14U.S. Constitution, equal protection clause of 14th amendment, incorporated by Supreme Court into 5th amendment to apply to federal government
  • Employers may not take any discriminatory actions against employees or prospective employees on the basis of their gender or sex.15Civil Rights Act of 1964

Sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity

  • In general, the government may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.16U.S. Constitution, equal protection clause of 14th amendment, incorporated by Supreme Court into 5th amendment to apply to federal government
  • Same sex couples may not be denied the right to be married17Obergefell v Hodges

9. Right to own guns for self-defense

You have the right to own guns for self-defense purposes, subject to certain limitations.18U.S. Constitution, 2nd amendment See more on weapons law.

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