The Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution as a whole guarantees specific, enduring rights to the people of the United States. The first 10 amendments guarantee certain freedoms that cannot be violated without legal recourse. But the Bill of Rights isn’t the last word in legal protection. The 14th Amendment, added to the Constitution after the Civil War, has perhaps been the most important legal guarantee for civil rights in U.S. history.
Equal Protection Today: How the 14th Amendment Should Be Guaranteeing Equal Rights
Most of the provisions in the original Constitution limited the power of the federal government only. The 14th Amendment, added in 1868, specifically prohibits government officials (both federal and state) from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without following the rules of legal process. This not only provides extra protection for civil rights, but extends the Bill of Rights into every state’s laws.
The Amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws with the following three clauses.
- Citizenship Clause. “All persons born in or naturalized to the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” This establishes a rule for citizenship—actually, a double citizenship, making individuals citizens both of a particular state and of the whole nation.
- Immunities Clause. “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” This establishes that state governments (and municipal and county governments within a state) cannot pass or enforce laws that impede the Constitution or constitutional rights.
- Equal Protection Clause. “No state shall deny its citizens the equal protection of the laws.” States may not deny citizens their rights for any reason, such as race, gender, or religious belief. Similarly, a state cannot choose to enforce laws for one person but not another.
It’s not surprising, given the breadth and depth of these guarantees, that the 14th Amendment has been the constitutional amendment most often cited in litigation.
Fulfilling the Promises of the 14th Amendment
Considering all of the recent tales of police violating rights, the ongoing struggles for gay rights, and the many forms of racism that run rampant throughout the country, do you think the 14th Amendment is holding up to its promises? Although civil rights are guaranteed in the Constitution, has enforcement of this ideal been vigorous enough to prevent violators from ignoring the laws?
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