Protected Classes under Anti-Discrimination Laws

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 What Are Key Anti-Discrimination Laws?

Since the 1960s, at the insistence of groups of people who argued that discrimination was happening in America, the federal government and the states have enacted several critical laws addressing that discrimination. These include:

  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the foremost act that banned labor discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Among many other advances, this statute and the seminal Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education helped to accelerate desegregation in southern schools. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). This independent federal agency oversees the enforcement of the Act and other federal anti-discrimination laws as they apply to employment.
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed various state practices that prevented African Americans from voting: the grandfather clause, literacy tests, and poll taxes.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act) was passed the week after Martin Luther King was assassinated. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned discrimination in public housing and certain private units.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits discrimination based on age against employees at least 40. It also prohibits employers from retaliating against applicants or employees for asserting their rights under the ADEA.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act addresses discrimination against those with disabilities. The ADA protects not only applicants and employees with disabilities but also those with a history of disability and those who are perceived — incorrectly — as having a disability.
  • The Equal Pay Act requires employers to pay men and women the same amount if they are in similar job categories.
  • The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants and employees based on their citizenship or national origin. Making IRCA difficult for employers to know how to implement, IRCA is also the same law that makes it illegal for employers to knowingly hire or retain employees who are not authorized to work in the United States and requires employers to examine employee immigration and citizenship documents and keep records verifying that their employees are authorized to work in this country.
  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act prevents employers from using an applicant’s or employee’s genetic information as the basis for employment decisions and requires employers to keep genetic information confidential.

What Is a Protected Class?

The various civil rights laws safeguard people of a “protected class” or “protected group.” A protected class is a group of people who qualify for certain special protection under a law or policy.

Under the federal laws cited above, and other federal anti-discrimination laws, a person may not be discriminated against based on certain characteristics:

  • Age
  • Race
  • National origin
  • Religious beliefs
  • Gender
  • Disability
  • Pregnancy
  • Veteran status

While these are federally protected classes, many states also have their own anti-discrimination laws and policies that are broader than the federal statutes. For example, some state laws also protect people based on:

  • Gender identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Political ideology
  • Service in a state militia.

Keep in mind that while state laws can give more protections than federal laws, they cannot give fewer protections than federal laws.

Private employers may also have policies in place to protect their employees from discrimination or harassment in the workplace based on certain statuses such as marital status, gender, or sexual orientation.

What Are Examples of Discrimination Against Protected Classes?

You may have read about discrimination legal cases, but what counts as discrimination? Discrimination can take many forms, including overt harassment, such as making fun of someone because of their race, or it can be more subtle, like only hiring people from a particular group.

Some examples of discrimination include:

  • Despite being fully qualified, someone over 40 is denied a promotion at work because of their age. Age discrimination can be hard to prove, but it becomes easier if the company has a common practice of depriving older people of quality work assignments and terminating their employment more often than they do with younger people.
  • A person is denied a marriage license when attempting to marry someone of the same gender.
  • A woman or man is denied promotions or advancement opportunities based on gender.
  • Discouraging girls from pursuing science or math classes in school.
  • A registered voter is treated differently from other voters at a polling place because of their appearance, race, or national origin.
  • The boss selectively hires people from their own church or other religious institution.
  • A business refuses to sell its products to people with disabilities, such as using a wheelchair.

Anti-discrimination laws protect people from discrimination based on “immutable characteristics.” This phrase generally refers to a physical trait that is extremely difficult or impossible to change, such as race or gender. The idea is that it is illegal to discriminate against a person based on who they are as a person – what is intrinsic to their being.

Because immutable characteristics are so intimately tied to an individual, they are the easiest way to define protected classes. This is why immutable characteristics are the most protected under the law. If a law, practice, or policy discriminates based on an immutable characteristic, the claimant will be considered part of a protected class.

Just being part of a protected class does not automatically guarantee a person protection in every situation or scenario. However, determining whether a person belongs to a protected class is usually the first step in determining the validity of a discrimination claim.

What Is Not Considered a Protected Class?

Although discrimination can exist in all types of groups, not every group is a protected class under the law. If a person is not a protected class member, they may not be protected under federal or state anti-discrimination laws.
For example, groups that are not considered protected classes include:

People might discriminate against someone due to their education or criminal record. However, because these categories do not count as a protected class under the law, they may not qualify for certain protections under the anti-discrimination laws. Unfortunately, not all unfair treatment is necessarily a violation of the law.

Should I Talk to a Lawyer if I’ve Been Discriminated Against?

Anti-discrimination laws often have very specific requirements and can lead to complex legal issues requiring much investigation and research. If you are dealing with a discrimination issue, it is in your best interests to contact an experienced discrimination lawyer to help you with your situation.

Your lawyer can help you determine whether you are a protected class member and understand your rights under the law. If you decide to pursue a discrimination claim, your lawyer can work to help you protect yourself and others in your position and can help you get compensation for your situation.

You will greatly benefit from the help of a lawyer if you decide to file a discrimination claim with the EEOC or the courts since both systems have their own procedures. An experienced lawyer can help guide you through the system, giving your claim the best possible outcome.

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