The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment prohibits states from denying any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law. In other words, the laws of a state must treat an individual in the same manner as other people 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 clause is not intended to provide equality among individuals or classes but only equal application of the law. The result of a law, therefore, is not relevant so long as there is no discrimination in its application.
By denying states the ability to discriminate, the Equal Protection Clause is crucial to the protection of civil rights. The Equal Protection Clause has served as the basis of Supreme Court decisions defining the scope of the rights enjoyed by different groups of citizens. For example, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Court held that the notion of “separate but equal” facilities and treatment for Black students in public education violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection to all citizens. Similarly, in Obergell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court held that the Equal Protection Clause guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.
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 an 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 Supreme Court finds a classification constitutional if it has a “rational basis” to serve a “legitimate state purpose.” The 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 based on race, religion, national origin or, in some situations, citizenship. In order for a classification permissible, the state must prove that it has a compelling interest and that the classification is necessary to further that interest. In practice, discriminatory laws based on race, national origin, or religion are almost always unconstitutional except in rare situations involving national security or affirmative action.The Court also applies the 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 Court requires states to show more than a rational basis (though it does not apply the strict-scrutiny test) for classifications based on gender, sexual orientation, or a child’s status as illegitimate. This mid-level scrutiny is sometimes referred to as “heightened” or “intermediate” scrutiny.
Laws that discriminate on the basis of age, disability, wealth, political preference, or status as a felon are subject only to rational-basis review.
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 Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
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