The terms civil liberties, civil rights, and human rights address three distinct, but sometimes overlapping, ideals. In brief, here are the differences in how the three terms are used:
Civil liberties are freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution that protect us from tyranny. The five basic civil liberties, contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, are:
Other civil liberties are protected in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution), and over the years, courts have recognized additional civil liberties protected by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. These other constitutionally protected rights include:
In the United States, civil rights include freedom from discrimination based on certain “suspect classifications,” such as race, gender, age, disability, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or social class. Civil rights are protected by a network of laws, including federal and state statutes; local ordinances; federal and state constitutions; and federal and state judicial opinions (common law).
In 1963, the United States saw significant racial unrest in reaction to school busing and the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. In response, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress to put together a comprehensive civil rights law to guarantee certain basic rights to all Americans, regardless of race. That law, enacted in 1964, bans any discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, or national origin. It includes provisions prohibiting such discrimination in employment, in public accommodations (such as hotels and motels), and in any federally funded programs. The law further facilitates the desegregation of schools and protects basic voting rights.
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees all citizens “equal protection of the law.” It prohibits states from passing laws that limit or interfere with the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” It also ensures that no person shall be deprived of “life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”
The Equal Protection Clause, the most litigated language in the Constitution, mandates that all states treat all citizens equally under the law. It has been used in legal arguments ranging from discrimination in access to rental housing to same-sex marriage and presidential elections.
Protecting your civil rights through federal action can take two forms:
In some cases where your civil rights have been violated, you may be required to file a claim with the government before you qualify to file a lawsuit in court. For example, if you’re the victim of workplace discrimination, you must submit a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before you file a private lawsuit.
Courts have construed a wide range of actions as violations of basic civil rights, including:
Human rights law seeks to ensure that all beings on the planet have access to certain amenities and resources, regardless of any factor other than their shared humanity. Human rights include access to food, gainful employment, education, healthcare, and liberty. Human rights law is primarily international in nature and exists in two forms:
Although non-binding, customary international laws can be authoritative references.
The United Nations set forth the basic standards in 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The United States ratified this declaration in 1992; however, the UDHR is not binding human rights law.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes 30 articles identifying basic human rights. Among the most fundamental are:
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