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Civil Rights 101: Definition, Examples, Importance

Civil rights protect individuals from discrimination and oppression by governments, social institutions, and individuals. They’re essential to a free, equal, and democratic society. In this article, we’ll explore the definition of “civil rights” and provide six critical examples of these types of rights. We’ll also explain why civil rights matter so much.

Civil rights protect an individual’s right to equal social opportunities and equal protection under the law. The right to equal employment, a fair trial, public education, public facility access, marriage equality, and freedom of religion are examples of civil rights.

What’s the definition of a civil right?

A civil right is a right that ensures equal social opportunities and equal protection under the law. If someone faces discrimination based on their race, age, gender, religion, or other personal characteristics, their civil rights have been violated. Governments are responsible for protecting people from discrimination, which means enforcing laws and holding individuals and institutions accountable for civil rights violations.

Where did civil rights come from? They’re like human rights and natural rights, but what’s considered a civil right varies significantly by time and place. The phrase itself – “civil rights” – comes from the Latin jus civis, which means “right of the citizen.” While every person had some rights in ancient times, “civil rights” were meant for citizens.

Today, civil rights are more widely granted to all people, but there are some areas of debate. Consider the right to vote in the United States. Some places let non-citizens vote in local elections, but only citizens can vote in federal elections. Many areas in the US also strip voting rights from people convicted of felonies. According to The Sentencing Project, around 4.6 million Americans can’t vote because of a felony conviction. Activists and experts consider this disenfranchisement a civil rights violation.

Is there a difference between a civil right and a civil liberty?

If you look up civil rights, you’ll find mentions of “civil liberties” at the same time. Are they different? Civil liberties limit what the government can do to people. As an example, freedom of speech prevents the government from censoring, retaliating, or legally sanctioning people for their opinions and ideas. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights deals with freedom of speech by stating: “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.” Other civil liberties include the right to privacy and freedom of the press.

Civil rights are rights that protect people and communities from discrimination. It protects a wide variety of personal characteristics like age, sexual orientation, gender identity, social class, religion, race, and so on. The line between civil rights and civil liberties often blurs because civil liberties can also be civil rights. Freedom of religion and freedom to marry are two examples. Because there’s significant overlap, civil liberties and civil rights are often discussed interchangeably. Both are essential to a functioning democracy.

What are examples of civil rights?

Civil rights protect people from discrimination by ensuring equal protection under the law and equal social opportunities. Here are six examples:

Right to equal employment

“Equal employment” forbids discrimination based on characteristics like a person’s race, religion, age, and gender. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 (The United States) is a clear example of how a government can protect this civil right. The EEOA amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to address employment discrimination against Black Americans and other minoritized groups. The Act of 1972 also gave the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the ability to enforce the law against individuals, employers, and labor unions that violated the original act’s employment provisions.

Right to a fair trial

The right to a fair trial appears in many international and national human rights instruments, such as Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights, and the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution. While there is no single international definition of what a “fair trial” constitutes, it involves civil rights such as the right to a public hearing, the right to counsel, and the right to be heard in a reasonable time. After the September 11 terror attacks in 2001, the United States opened a detention camp on Guantanamo Bay for individuals with suspected ties to Islamic terrorist groups. The camp is the site of severe civil rights violations. In addition to torturing the detainees, the United States has never given any of them a fair trial. Many of them have never been charged with a crime.

Right to public education

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right to education, which should be free at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education should also be compulsory, while higher education should be equally accessible based on merit. In South Africa, the 1953 Bantu Education Act violated this right. As part of the country’s apartheid system, it segregated education by race and trained Black students for the types of manual jobs the government declared “acceptable” for Black South Africans. The curriculum also reinforced the belief that Black South Africans were inferior to white South Africans. The Act also ensured that Black schools were severely underfunded compared to their white counterparts, which violates the civil right to equal opportunities.

Right to use public facilities

Everyone has the right to use public facilities such as public bathrooms, libraries, hospitals, public transport, sanitation facilities, and more. Because these services are meant to serve everyone in an area, discrimination against someone based on their gender, age, race, and so on represents a violation of their civil rights. In the US and the UK, many bathroom laws seek to exclude trans people from the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. While they may technically have access to another public facility, being forced to use a bathroom that doesn’t align with their gender is still a form of discrimination. The arguments used to justify that discrimination – which include fear-mongering about trans people perpetuating violence – echo the sentiments that propped up the racial segregation of public bathrooms.

Marriage equality

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone of “full age” has the right to marry and have a family without any limitation due to race, nationality, or religion. In places like the United States, marriage has long been considered a civil right. Interracial was once banned, but in 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting interracial marriages was unconstitutional. Marriage equality has since expanded to same-sex marriage, which was legalized in the US in 2015. According to the Human Rights Campaign, same-sex marriage is now legal in 34 countries.

Freedom of religion

Freedom of religion is an individual’s (and community’s) right to practice their religion or belief in public or private. It also protects the right to not practice a religion or belief, so people who do not follow a certain religion cannot be persecuted. In 2010, France banned the wearing of face-covering headgear, which included burqas and niqabs. Opponents of the law argued that it threatened individual religious freedoms and discriminated against interpretations of Islam that encouraged or required women to wear face coverings. In 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee found the ban disproportionately harmed the right of two female plaintiffs to “manifest their religious beliefs.” In 2022, French lawmakers voted to ban women and girls from wearing hijab while playing sports.

Why do civil rights matter?

Civil rights weren’t always considered important, but they’re now an essential part of a free society. Various social movements fight for the rights of specific groups, but civil rights matter to everyone. Here are three of the most important reasons why:

#1. They protect individual liberties

Civil rights protect all individuals – but especially those belonging to minoritized groups – from discrimination. Throughout history, we see the effects of discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, and more. Both the United States and South Africa had systems based on racial segregation, which led to horrific human rights violations whose consequences reverberate today. Civil rights, like the right to public education, the right to equal employment, and the right to public services, safeguard everyone’s right to a good life.

#2. They guard societies from tyranny

By forbidding discrimination based on personal characteristics, civil rights prevent societies from descending into tyranny. How? Civil rights establish basic freedoms for individuals and limitations on the powerful. They’re a vital check on government power, but civil rights also prevent discrimination in corporations and other private institutions. As an example, The Fair Housing Act in the United States makes discrimination illegal in most types of housing, including public and private housing. When civil rights aren’t being protected, social movements like the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa rise up.

#3. They protect democracy

Civil rights help ensure equal social opportunities and protection under the law, which are both essential to a functioning democracy. The right to vote is just one specific example, but all civil rights foster democratic principles like equality, inclusion, participation, and access. If a society doesn’t protect the civil rights of its population, democracy is threatened. Individuals can take action by advocating for better enforcement of civil rights and expansions of civil rights. There are also organizations around the world working to protect civil rights and democracy.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.