When dealing with situations that involve anti-discrimination lawsuits, you’re likely to hear the phrase “protected class” or “protected group.” Many people may not know exactly what this term means, but it’s actually a relatively simple concept. A protected class is a group of people who qualify for certain special protection under a law or policy.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is one anti-discrimination law that protects certain groups of people. Under this act, and other federal anti-discrimination laws (like the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act), a person may not be discriminated against based on certain characteristics:

  • Age;
  • Race; 
  • National Origin;
  • Religious Beliefs;
  • Gender ;
  • Disability;
  • Pregnancy; and
  • Veteran Status.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (you may know it as the “EEOC”), which is the independent federal agency that oversees the enforcement of the Act and other federal anti-discrimination laws as they apply to employment.

While these are federally protected classes, many states also have their own anti-discrimination laws and policies that may be broader than the federal statutes. This means that state laws may protect more people than perhaps the federal laws do. 

For example, some state laws also protect people on the basis of:

  • Gender Identity;
  • Sexual Orientation;
  • Political Ideology; and
  • 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 cases or heard about certain anti-discrimination laws in the news, but what counts as discrimination? Discrimination can take many forms, including harassment, racial slurs, derogatory remarks, or unwanted personal attention or touching. 

Some examples of discrimination may include:

  • A person being denied a marriage license when they attempt to marry a person of the same gender;
  • A registered voter being treated differently from other voters at a polling place because of their appearance, race, or national origin;
  • An employee over the age of 40 being denied a promotion at work due to their age, despite being fully qualified for the job;
  • An employee is subjected to teasing and harassment at work due to their gender. (This example has recently come to the forefront of the news with the #MeToo movement and other stories about sexual harassment in the workplace.)

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. Unfortunately, if a person is not a member of a protected class, they may not be protected under federal or state anti-discrimination laws. 

For example, groups that are not considered protected classes include:

It is possible that 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 law.

What are “Immutable Characteristics” in Regard to Anti-Discrimination Laws?

The term “immutable characteristics” generally refers to a physical trait that is extremely difficult to change, such as race or gender. The idea is that it is illegal to discriminate against a person based upon who they are as a person. 

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 upon an immutable characteristic, then 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. 

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 that require a lot of investigation and research. If you are dealing with a discrimination issue, it is in your best interests to contact an experienced employment lawyer to help you with your situation. 

Your lawyer can help you determine whether you are a member of a protected class and understand your rights under the law. If you decide to pursue a discrimination claim, your lawyer can work to help you protect those rights. 

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