A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury. Some examples of civil rights are the freedom of speech, press, assembly, the right to vote, freedom from involuntary servitude, and the right to equality in public places. Discrimination occurs when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of their membership in a particular group or class. Statutes have been enacted to prevent discrimination based on an individual’s race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and, in some instances, sexual preference.
The most important expansion of civil rights in the United States was the enactment of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment was passed to ensure that no state “shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States . . . [or] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, [or] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Many of the statutes from these amendments are still in force today and protect individuals from discrimination and from the deprivation of their civil rights. The most prominent civil rights legislation since Reconstruction is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, through which Congress uses its power to regulate interstate commerce.
One of the most significant outcomes of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation addresses strong legislative policy against discrimination in all public schools and colleges. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in all federally-funded programs and prohibits employment discrimination where the employer is engaged in interstate commerce. It also prohibits many other acts of discrimination, including :
• Public Accommodation and Facilities
• Rights of Institutionalized Persons
• Americans with Disabilities
Numerous other pieces of subsequent legislation have been passed that re-enforce these key civil rights areas.
The Supreme Court plays a crucial role in interpreting the extent of civil rights. A single Supreme Court ruling can change the very nature of a right throughout the entire country. Supreme Court decisions can also affect the manner in which Congress enacts civil rights legislation, as occurred with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal courts were/are crucial in mandating and supervising school desegregation programs and other programs established to rectify state or local discrimination. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is responsible for enforcing the civil rights laws passed by Congress.
Civil rights and liberties are recognized internationally by numerous agreements and declarations. Often these rights are included in agreements in which nations pledge themselves to the general protection of human rights. The United States adheres to the most notable international agreement on civil rights: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.