equal protection: an overview
The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from denying any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. See U.S. Const. amend. XIV (http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.amendmentxiv.html). In other words, the laws of a state must treat an individual in the same manner as others in similar conditions and circumstances. A violation would occur, for example, if a state prohibited an individual from entering into an employment contract because he or she was a member of a particular race. The equal protection clause is not intended to provide “equality” among individuals or classes but only “equal application” of the laws. The result, therefore, of a law is not relevant so long as there is no discrimination in its application. By denying states the ability to discriminate, the equal protection clause of the Constitution is crucial to the protection of civil rights. See Civil Rights and Discrimination.
Generally, the question of whether the equal protection clause has been violated arises when a state grants a particular class of individuals the right to engage in activity yet denies other individuals the same right. There is no clear rule for deciding when a classification is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has dictated the application of different tests depending on the type of classification and its effect on fundamental rights. Traditionally, the Court finds a state classification constitutional if it has “a rational basis” to a “legitimate state purpose.” The Supreme Court, however, has applied more stringent analysis in certain cases. It will “strictly scrutinize” a distinction when it embodies a “suspect classification.” In order for a classification to be subject to strict scrutiny, it must be shown that the state law or its administration is meant to discriminate. Usually, if a purpose to discriminate is found the classification will be strictly scrutinized if it is based on race, national origin, or, in some situations, non U.S. citizenship (the suspect classes). In order for a classification to be found permissible under this test it must be proven, by the state, that there is a compelling interest to the law and that the classification is necessary to further that interest. The Court will also apply a strict scrutiny test if the classification interferes with fundamental rights such as first amendment rights, the right to privacy, or the right to travel. The Supreme Court also requires states to show more than a rational basis (though it does not apply the strictly scrutiny test) for classifications based on gender or a child’s status as illegitimate.
The 14th amendment is not by its terms applicable to the federal government. Actions by the federal government, however, that classify individuals in a discriminatory manner will, under similar circumstances, violate the due process of the fifth amendment. See U.S. Const. amend.