Understanding the 14<sup>th</sup> Amendment
Authored by LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor, , Attorney at Law

Understanding the 14th Amendment

The U.S. Constitution was created by the founding fathers on September 17, 1787 and serves as an outline of rules that our government must follow. Different events throughout history have resulted in many changes being made within the constitution. These changes are known as amendments, and currently there are a total of 27, many of which outline fundamental rights associated with the important area of constitutional law. One of the most important amendments under the constitution defined the status of citizenship within our country. The 14th amendment, ratified on July 28, 1868 was created as part of the Reconstruction Amendments and said that all people born or living in the United States are citizen and should be treated equally under the law. The creation of this amendment changed the way Americans look at equality, and the effects it had on our history are still as important today as they were over 200 years ago.

At the time the 14th Amendment was created, The Civil War had just come to an end, defeating the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln, who was acting President, had declared the slaves freed at the end of the war; however, there were still a lot of lingering questions regarding the former Confederates and the status of slaves in the country. To answer these questions, congress created the Reconstruction Amendments which included the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the constitution. The 13th Amendment was ratified in December of 1865 and officially put an end to slavery within the United States. This new law declared that slaves were no longer the property of the people, but it didn't answer questions about the new rights that they were now guaranteed. As a result, the members of Congress created the 14th Amendment to detail the rights of these newly-freed former slaves.

The majority of Southern states rejected this amendment, but it was still ratified because the necessary three-fourths of the states had agreed to pass it. In addition to offering equality for all people no matter what color of their skin, the 14th Amendment forbid any state to deny someone the right to receive a fair chance with issues of life, property and due process regardless of how they looked. The 14th Amendment was also created to give anyone under the jurisdiction of the law the right to equality. This became known as the Equal Protection Clause. The final amendment in the Reconstruction era was the creation of the 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870), which gave citizens the right to vote despite their race, prior servitude or color. These three amendments worked together to provide former slaves with equality and freedom thus changing the course of history forever.

During its time, the main purpose of the 14th Amendment was to ensure that the Civil Rights Act passed in 1866 was upheld. However, following the adoption of the 14th Amendment, Supreme Court decisions began placing restrictions on the Equal Protection Clause. For example, in the court case Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court said that the states were able to uphold segregation, as long as facilities were created for both blacks and whites. This eventually led to the formation of the separate but equal doctrine, which was considered by the court to be sufficient in fulfilling the 14th Amendment. On May 17, 1954 just over 50 years later, the Plessy decision was reversed with the trial of Brown v. Board of Education, bringing an end to governmental segregation declaring that it was unconstitutional. Another important aspect of this amendment said that states, as well as federal power, were required to abide by the Bill of Rights, meaning that both of these powers were expected to abide by equal protection. The significance of the 14th Amendment became a crucial part of the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) and the many lawsuits that referenced it during that time.

Today, the 14th Amendment still stands as one of the most historically important building blocks to our country's democracy. Along with the other two Reconstruction Amendments, it continues to uphold our nation's promise that everyone is created equally under the law despite race, gender, nationality or orientation. The significance of the 14th Amendment defined in the United States Constitution continues to be an influence on the history and growth of our great nation.

To learn more about the 14th Amendment and its importance, please visit these additional resources:


14th Amendment Rights within Family Law

Dating back to the early 1920's, the U.S. Supreme Court has afforded 14th amendment constitutional rights when it comes to family relations. These rights fall under the fundamental right of privacy guaranteed by the 14th amendment. The Court protects the institution of family because it has been a core concept in American traditions. Important family laws related to the 14th Amendment include:

  • The right to marry – States cannot put restrictions on the right to marry if a person fails to pay child support from a previous relationship. Likewise, the courts are wary on any restrictions connected to forming a marriage or dissolving a marriage.
  • Living together as a family – States cannot define only a nuclear family in order to place a restriction on who can live together. For example, a state cannot make a law stating that a grandmother cannot take care of the grandkids within her home just because she is not a mother or father (unless, of course, she is found unfit). Likewise, the state may extend the definition of family to a non-biological family, like foster parents.
  • Parental Rights – This includes rights to the custody of a child, visitation, right to consent to medical treatment, the right to contract for the child, the right to inherit property from the child and vice versa. However, there are obligations that a parent owes to their child and parental rights can be terminated under certain circumstances.
  • Visitation Rights – There are also visitation rights for non-custodial family members, like grandparents. However, these rights may vary according to the state. For example, California, New York and Illinois all have their own rules governing grandparent visitation. However, it is important to remember that courts may apply restrictions to visitation rights for anyone, including a biological parent. Also remember, that if a person violates a court order with respect to visitation, they may be held in contempt of court and face a fine, or even jail time.

It is important to contact an experienced family law attorney as soon as possible if you are involved in a dispute concerning problems with the family. Also, note that you should find a lawyer in your state. Links to family law attorneys in specific states can be found here: California Lawyers, New York Lawyers, and Illinois Lawyers.

14th Amendment Rights for the Incarcerated

For many years, incarcerated inmates enjoyed no 14th amendment protections. The rationale was that, as a consequence of a criminal conviction and incarceration, all constitutional rights were surrender, along with the prisoner's freedom. However, in the 1970's the courts began to acknowledge that incarcerated persons are to be granted certain rights. Note that the law does not strictly enforce all rights for prisoners. The law gives prison officials some discretion as to what is appropriate to allow within a prison setting, in accordance with the institutions rules and regulations. The following are rights that a prisoner does have:

  • The right to petition review of grievances, including access to the courts to argue their complaint. This includes the right to bring a civil claim for damages against the prison. However, the prison can dismiss claims that are frivolous and for some claims the prisoner must show an actual physical injury.
  • The right to be free of racially segregation, except for reasons associated with security and discipline (e.g. some prisons will segregate based on gang affiliation, which can result in racial segregation).
  • The right to be treated fairly and protected from cruel and unusual punishment.
  • The right to medical and mental health care.

The courts consider whether the restriction is reasonable when determining if an incarcerated person's rights have been violated. Many restrictions imposed by prisons will be upheld because they are deemed reasonable and necessary for the prison to properly function. The following rights do not apply to those incarcerated:

  • The right to privacy
  • The right to a hearing in certain circumstances (e.g. a prisoner does not have the right to a hearing when request a transfer to another prison).
  • Limitations on free speech

Lastly, even after a prisoner is released from incarceration they may still have issues with matters like the right to vote, employment and professional licensing. However, many times the prisoner can get their record sealed or expunged in order to regain these rights. Since states vary in the process, a criminal lawyer can explain whether a conviction can be expunged.

The 14th Amendment Health Care Rights and Issues

Although the 14th amendment, as well as the constitution as a whole, does not explicitly mention a right to health care the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government does owe the public the obligation to provide healthcare, in some circumstances. With that said, they have never actually issued a ruling for a right to health care.

However, recent laws have brought the debate to the right to health care to the forefront of legal arguments around this issue. For example, there are several federal statutes that provide funding for health care services. However, many states have amended their state constitutions and enacted laws to "opt-out" of federal funding requirements for these services.

This also brings up many constitutional issues, since a direct conflict between a state law and a federal law generally make the state law invalid according to the supremacy clause. On the other hand, many states have also expanded the right of health care, which is valid since the federal government only sets the minimum standard that states must follow.

Some of the federal laws that have brought up these constitutional issues as they relate to the health insurance and mental health insurance in the context of right to health care are:

  • Medicare
  • Medicaid
  • Children's Health Insurance Program
  • Affordable Care Act (also known as "Obama care")

Despite the lack of the right to health care mentioned in the constitution, many argue that the denial of this right deprives poor person equal protection under the law, which is a constitutional right. Similarly, the 14th amendment provides certain rights related to "privacy". The U.S. Court has held that the 14th amendment does include the following rights, which certainly can be interpreted to the right of health care:

  • Right to procreate
  • Right to use contraception
  • Right to have and abortion (to choose whether or not to have an abortion but not the right for it to be government funded)
  • Right to maintain bodily integrity

If legal issues arise from heath care services (including a violation of patient privacy), it is advisable to contact an attorney with experience in civil rights law.

The 14th Amendment and Civil Rights

The 14th Amendment is important to civil rights because it clearly states that all people must be treated equally and enjoy "equal protection of the law." For example segregation is not permitted under the 14th amendment. Additionally, it states that persons cannot be deprived of their life, liberty or property, without a legal proceeding, notice of that proceeding and an opportunity to be heard before the government.

If a civil right is violated under the 14th amendment, it gives rise to the possibility of civil damages in a lawsuit. Civil rights include the following:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of the press
  • The right of assembly
  • Freedom from involuntary servitude
  • The right to equality in public places. However, courts have upheld private spaces, like a private club, to engage in segregation (e.g. an all-male private club).

Additionally, the Civil Rights Act, which is a federal law that the states must follow, protect U.S. citizens from discrimination based on housing, employment, race, sex and national origin, age, disability or pregnancy. Furthermore, many states have expanded their civil rights laws to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, in addition to other forms of discrimination not prohibited by federal law.

The 14th Amendment and Gay Rights

Unlike the protections given to minorities and religious groups (who are considered a "suspect-class" and receive the most 14th amendment protection), the Courts have declined to give the highest level of protection to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people (LGBT). However, in recent years, federal laws have been passed that make it easier for state laws to be enacted that expand gay rights in some situations. Some federal protections include:

  • Hate crimes Prevention Act – Used to limit violence only associated with race and religion, but is now extended to sexual orientation, as well as gender ad disability.
  • Marriage – DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), which prohibited the federal government from recognizing gay marriage, was struck down in 2014. Since then the number of states that allow gay marriage reached the majority, with 36 states ruling that the prohibition is unconstitutional.
  • Privacy – Sodomy laws are prohibited by the federal government
  • Military Service – "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was stuck down in 2011 and LGBT people can now serve openly in the military. However, transgender and intersex service-members however are still banned from openly serving.
  • Housing – In 2012, a federal agency issued a regulation to prohibit LGBT discrimination in federally-assisted housing programs.
  • Medical Facilities – In 2010, President Obama issued an executive order requiring facilities to grant visitation and medical decision-making rights to gay and lesbian partners, as well as designees of others such as widows and widowers.

However, there are certain rights that the LGBT community do not enjoy on the federal level. For example, there is no federal statute addressing employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the private sector (although federal LGBT employees are protected). However, many states have added additional rights for LGBT people. For example California has extended the right to marry, adopt and the right to inmate conjugal visits, as well as other protections.

If any of the protected rights afforded to LGBT people have been violated, it is in a person's best interest to contact an experienced attorney.

The 14th Amendment and Land and Property Ownership Rights

Although the 14th amendment does not mention land and property ownership rights, and the constitution only mentions the term "property" once (protection against "life, liberty or property"), though property rights are implied throughout the constitution. One of the concerns of the founders was that the federal government might try to use the tax system to favor one state over another. Therefore, many property rights involve the equal apportionment of taxes among the states. Other property rights include:

  • Protection of intellectual property by enacting copyright and patent laws.
  • Included in the 5th amendment is the provision that persons cannot be deprived of property without and hearing before a court and the right to compensation if property is taken for public use.
  • Rights associated with land ownership
  • Limitation on states from discriminating against the property rights of out-of-state citizens
  • A requirement that state courts honor the property records in other states (Full Faith and Credit Clause).
  • Protections for citizens doing business and owning land in other states.
  • Protections against housing discrimination.
  • Prevention of quartering troops in private homes.
  • Protection against unreasonable search and seizure (usually an issue in criminal law)
  • Protection against excessive fines.

However, there are certain restrictions that the government is allowed to place restrictions on. These include zoning restrictions, designating property ownership in certain ways which may limit rights to that property.

There are several remedies if a person's property rights are violated. For example, if there are misrepresentations when it comes to zoning requirements or property value when one buys property, a civil suit can be brought against the real estate agent for damages. Contacting a real estate attorney is advisable before buying property. Similarly, a homeowner's association can also be sued for violations of certain rules dealing with the property.

Employment Rights, Discrimination and the 14th Amendment

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects people from discrimination by private citizens, organizations and governments. Included in the definition of prohibited discrimination is employment/workplace discrimination. These protections are based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment, which mandates that states must treat an individual in the same manner as other people in similar conditions and circumstances. These entities may not discriminate, in the hiring process, based on the following:

  • Race or Color
  • National Origin
  • Sex
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Pregnancy
  • Sexual orientation (in some states and cities)

Employers must also not discriminate in the workplace by unfair practices in:

  • Hiring, forced retirement, firing
  • Job advertisements and recruitment
  • Compensation and pay
  • Health/Medical and fringe benefits
  • Waivers of the right to sue in exchange for severance pay
  • Drug Testing in some circumstances – The federal government allows drug testing but states vary on laws that determine when the testing is legal.

Additionally, neither employers nor employees may engage in defamation of another in the workplace.

If an employer violates an employee's right against discrimination, it is advisable that they contact an employment attorney who can assist in a potential lawsuit involving the various types of discrimination listed above.

The 14th Amendment and the Rights of Terminated Employees

Protections against wrongful termination are implied in the 14th amendments Equal Protection Clause. Generally, an employer may terminate employment for any reason, or no reason at all, if the employment is "at will". However, wrongful termination based on discrimination, or other violations, can be the basis of a lawsuit for damages against the employer. Wrongful terminations are illegal for the following reasons:

  • Discrimination – Discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, religion, sex, age, or in some states, sexual orientation.
  • Retaliation – Firing an employee for complaining about discrimination.
  • Contractual Employees – Firing an employee that is under contract, unless the terms for termination are stated in the contract.
  • Illegal Acts – Firing the employee because they refused to participate in an illegal act.
  • Family or Medical Leave – Firing an employee who takes family or medical leave for a reason outlined in the Family and Medical Leave Act.

State laws vary significantly with regards to wrongful termination. Below are links that outline the laws in different states: