Before the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution was enacted in the late 1800s, it was not a given that states guaranteed the same rights, privileges and protections to all citizens. The 5th Amendment implicitly guaranteed that the federal government provide equal protection of the laws, but states were free to legislate as they saw fit. The 14th Amendment changed that, explicitly prohibiting states from violating an individual’s right of equal protection. The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees that “no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Equal Protection Clause was enacted after the Civil War to prevent states from discriminating against freed slaves, but has been expanded well beyond its initial intent.
What Is the 14th Amendment?
Congress passed the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1866 and it became law in 1868. The 14th Amendment includes three historic clauses: the Equal Protection Clause, the Due Process Clause and the Enforcement Clause. The Equal Protection Clause was created to extended the civil liberties and rights granted by the Bill of Rights to former slaves, preventing governmental discrimination against African-Americans and granting freed slaves full citizenship. Over the years, the Equal Protection Clause has been expanded to prevent discrimination against any race or ethnicity, as well as other protected classes.
The Due Process Clause requires the law to be followed before depriving someone of their “life, liberty or property.” Due process ensures such things as a fair trial in court and governmental fairness standards to ensure one’s rights aren’t violated. The Enforcement Clause gives Congress the power to enforce the provisions of the 14th Amendment, including the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause.
What Did the 14th Amendment Do for African Americans?
The Civil War provided freedom to millions of black people, who were previously afforded no rights. The 14th Amendment was passed to establish civil and legal rights for black Americans. The amendment made freed slaves citizens of the United States and of the state they resided in. It also provides equal protection of the law to all citizens of the United States. Initially enacted to prevent state governments from discriminating against blacks, the clause was expanded by the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent the federal government from discriminating as well. A series of court cases took the 14th Amendment to heart and made strides toward ending racial segregation. In Brown v. Board of Education, segregated schools were deemed unconstitutional, and later in Loving v. Virginia, laws prohibiting interracial marriage were ruled to be unconstitutional.
Where in the Constitution Is the Equal Protection Clause Found?
The U.S. Constitution has 27 amendments. Three of these amendments – the 13th, 14th and 15th – were enacted after the Civil War, and are referred to as the Reconstruction Amendments. They abolished slavery and extended new constitutional protections to blacks, including the right to vote and equal protection under the laws of the country. The Equal Protection Clause is found in Section One of the 14th Amendment
How the Equal Protection Clause Applies Today
The Equal Protection Clause provides more protections than its original intent, now covering all races. The Supreme Court invokes the clause to prohibit discrimination based on other factors as well, including gender, immigration status and sexual orientation. In Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court invoked the Equal Protection Clause to protect same-sex marriages. The court ruled that the challenged laws intruded on the liberties of same-sex couples. It further ruled that the 14th Amendment requires a state to license and recognize a lawful marriage between two people of the same sex.
Not all laws that appear to discriminate are automatically deemed unconstitutional. A law can be deemed constitutional if there is a legitimate and plausible reason for discrimination. If the law applies to certain “suspect classifications,” such as race and gender, the court assesses whether the government has important or compelling reasons to discriminate and if the discrimination is carefully tailored to serve those reasons.
The U.S. Constitution has 27 amendments. The Equal Protection Clause is found in Section One of the 14th Amendment.
Leslie Bloom earned a J.D. from U.C. Davis’ King Hall, with a focus on public interest law. She is a licensed attorney who has done advocacy work for children and women. She holds a B.S. in print journalism, and has more than 20 years of experience writing for a variety of print and online publications, including the Journal of Juvenile Law and Policy.