For Schools

Fairness & Equal Treatment: Strategy
Background on Teaching About Equality Under The Law

Background on the Law

This brief overview will give you important information for your presentation. It is most helpful in the strategies for the upper grades, where students will be asked to reason as courts do in deciding cases.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution

The Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall deny to any person equal protection under law. That means it applies to a law or government practice, not to purely private matters. Obviously, the existence of a statute or ordinance establishes that the government is involved. But with some practices (say the sports program at a private school) the first question is, "is the government sufficiently involved to make the practice subject to the Fourteenth Amendment? (Does the school have grants from the government, for example?)

Once government involvement is established, courts use three different tests to determine whether the equal protection clause has been violated, depending upon the nature of the group or right involved. In order of rigor, they are:

Strict Scrutiny Test

Applies to laws and practices that discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, alien status, or some fundamental right such as freedom of speech or religion. As the test suggests, the government’s act is scrutinized closely. The government must show that it has a compelling interest, in other words, an extremely important reason for treating people differently on one of these bases. It must also show that this governmental action is the least restrictive means to achieving its purpose and is narrowly tailored to advance this compelling interest.

Substantial Relationship Test

This intermediate scrutiny applies to government acts that classify on the basis of gender. In these cases, the government must show an important reason to justify its classification. There must be a close relationship between the government’s act and its purpose.

Rational Relationship Test

Otherwise and in most cases, government actions that classify one group differently from another must pass this minimal scrutiny. There must be a logical relationship between the classification and the law’s or practice’s purpose. The government’s interest in discriminating must be a legitimate one.

Selected Federal Civil Rights Laws

The discussion may turn to some of the well-known laws that affect equal treatment of persons. Here is a quick look at several important ones:

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, amended in 1972, prohibits discrimination in public accommodations based on race, color, religion, or national origin. It prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin (1) in employment by businesses with more than 15 employees; (2) by state and local governments and public educational institutions; and (3) in any program or activity receiving any federal funds.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, amended in 1978, prohibits arbitrary age discrimination of persons aged 40 and older by employers of 20 or more persons.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in employment, public services, public accommodations, telecommunications, and other activities


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