California Civil Rights Laws

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The West Coast is well-known as a bastion for progressive, oftentimes trailblazing legislation. In the case of California civil rights laws, the state, of course, adheres to the standards set by federal law, but it goes beyond national legal measures in some cases. In key areas, California laws have actually preceded civil rights protections later enacted by the U.S. government.

Federal Civil Rights: A Summary

As the 31st state in the union, California is subject to the civil rights laws set by the federal government of the United States. To understand California civil rights laws, it helps to understand the makeup of civil rights protections in America on the national level.

In addition to the Bill of Rights laid out in the Constitution of the United States – famously covering the rights to free speech, freedom of religion and so forth – some of the additional landmark federal legislation in this essential arena include:

  • U.S. Code Title 42, Chapter 21: This section codifies major acts, such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1964 and the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act: Protects employees ages 40 years and old from ageism at the hands of their employers. 
  • Americans with Disabilities Act: This iconic act offers sweeping anti-discrimination protections for disabled Americans in the areas of access to public services, education and employment.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964: A foundation of modern civil rights in America, this act ended racial segregation and prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, skin color, nationality or sex.
  • Equal Pay Act of 1963: Requires employers to provide equal pay to employees regardless of gender.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act: Aims to ensure that employees are granted time off work to care for newborn or newly adopted children or to care for seriously ill family members.
  • Voting Rights Act of 1965: Disallows restrictions on the right to vote based on discriminatory practices. 

Other nationwide civil rights protections prohibit age-based discrimination toward those receiving federal financial aid, discrimination against people with disabilities on air transportation, and discrimination in the areas of access to credit, housing, free public education and employee benefit plans. Still others protect the rights of incarcerated Americans, ensure equal access to disaster relief and emergency assistance, prohibit gender discrimination in education, and protect religious organizations from zoning discrimination.

Civil Rights in California: 1960s and Before

While some California laws mirror those at the federal level, the state has its own storied history in civil rights legislation. Even in the late 1800s, California Civil Code Section 51 prohibited discrimination in places of public accommodation. Revised in 1919 and again in 1923, Section 51 states that: “citizens within the jurisdiction of this state are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges [...] subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to all citizens.”

Section 51 applies to rights to public areas, ranging from restaurants to hotels to barber shops to all sorts of entertainment venues (even skating rinks and soda fountains). Section 52 of the Civil Code details the compensatory damages due to be paid by anyone denying California citizens access to public accommodations.

During the civil rights movement that kicked off in the late 1950s, Section 51 was further amended to clarify protections granted to the African-American citizens of California. These changes, passed in 1959, greatly broadened protections against discrimination to all business establishments (literally, “business establishments of every kind whatsoever”) and clarified that all Californians are “free and equal, and no matter what their race, color, religion, ancestry, or national origin.”

The Unruh Civil Rights Act

While civil rights in California in the 1960s focused on race, the word “sex” was added to the amended Section 51 in 1974 to protect Californians against gender-based discrimination in public places. The net of protections would continue to grow into the 1980s with one of California state’s most famous acts of civil rights-oriented lawmaking, the Unruh Civil Rights Act.

Named for its author, Democratic state treasurer Jesse M. Unruh, the Unruh Act was passed into state law in 1987. Most notably, this act once again broadened the scope of the language in the California Civil Code Section 51, this time to offer anti-discriminatory protections for the blind and physically disabled, in addition to the marginalized groups the law already listed. From this point forward, Civil Code Section 51 would be known and cited as the Unruh Civil Rights Act.

The Unruh Act is particularly significant for preceding the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA), which wasn’t enacted on the federal level until 1992. As such, the Unruh Act was amended that same year to ensure that the law wasn’t limited to those with physical disabilities, but protected all California citizens with disabilities. This put the state law in line with the federal ADA.

As of 2019, the most up-to-date version of this once leading-edge law states that: “All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, or medical condition are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.”

California Fair Employment and Housing Act

In California, 1959 wasn’t just a key year for Section 51 of the Civil Code before the days of Jess M. Unruh. Codified that same year, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act – like Civil Code Section 51 before it – is a progressive measure that predicts many of the federal civil rights protections that would be passed into law in the ensuing years.

Found in the California Government Code, Section 12940, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (or FEHA) makes it illegal for employers to harass or discriminate against employees on the basis of mental or physical disabilities or medical conditions. This law applies to employers who regularly employee five or more persons and also covers job applicants, interns, volunteers and contractors in California.

Per California Government Code Section 12926(m), legally defined disabilities include:

  • Physiological diseases or conditions (including those of the neurological, immunological, musculoskeletal, sensory, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, hemic, lymphatic and endocrine systems) that limit an individual’s ability to participate in major physical, mental and social life activities.
  • Health impairments that require special education.

More than that, employers may not discriminate on the basis of an employee having a history of diseases, conditions or health impairments, nor can they discriminate based on health impairments that are not presently disabling but may be in the future. As is often the case in California law, these protections cast a wide safety net of civil rights for the citizens of the Golden State, rights that have held up in court time and time again.

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