Equal Protection Clause: Fourteenth Amendment, Discrimination

Explore the origins, development, and impact of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in combating discrimination and ensuring fair treatment under U.S. law.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is a cornerstone of American civil rights law. It mandates that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." This clause has been instrumental in combating discrimination and ensuring that all individuals receive fair and equal treatment under the law. This legal guide explores the origins, development, and implications of the Equal Protection Clause, with a particular focus on its role in addressing discrimination.

Historical Context

The Fourteenth Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified on July 9, 1868, during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War. It was designed to address the legal status of former slaves and to ensure their rights as citizens. The amendment comprises several sections, but the most significant for our purposes is Section 1, which includes the Equal Protection Clause.

Official Link: 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Civil Rights (1868)

Drafting and Ratification

The drafting of the Fourteenth Amendment was a complex process involving intense political negotiations. The Radical Republicans in Congress sought to ensure that the rights of newly freed slaves were protected against discriminatory state laws, known as "Black Codes," which sought to maintain racial hierarchies.

Official Link: Landmark Legislation: The Fourteenth Amendment - Senate.gov

The Equal Protection Clause

Text of the Clause

The Equal Protection Clause is found in Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment. It states:

"Nor shall any State [...] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Official Link: Fourteenth Amendment Section 1 | Constitution Annotated

Interpretation and Scope

The Equal Protection Clause has been interpreted by the courts to apply not only to racial discrimination but also to discrimination based on gender, religion, and other characteristics. The Supreme Court has played a crucial role in defining the scope and application of the clause through landmark decisions.

Official Link: Fourteenth Amendment | Browse - Constitution Annotated

Landmark Supreme Court Cases

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upheld state laws requiring racial segregation under the doctrine of "separate but equal." This decision effectively sanctioned racial discrimination and segregation for over half a century.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Brown v. Board of Education marked a turning point in the interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, overturning Plessy v. Ferguson and declaring that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Official Link: The Right to Equal Protection under the United States Constitution

Loving v. Virginia (1967)

In Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court struck down state laws banning interracial marriage. The Court held that such laws violated the Equal Protection Clause, emphasizing that the freedom to marry is a fundamental right.

Reed v. Reed (1971)

Reed v. Reed was the first Supreme Court case to apply the Equal Protection Clause to gender discrimination. The Court ruled that laws discriminating based on gender must have a rational basis, setting the stage for future gender equality cases.

Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry under the Equal Protection Clause. This landmark decision extended marriage equality to all states.

Legislative Impact

Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in American history. Title VII of the Act prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Official Link: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972

Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. It has been instrumental in promoting gender equality in education and athletics.

Official Link: The 14th Amendment and the Evolution of Title IX

Proving Discrimination

Intentional Discrimination

To prove intentional discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause, plaintiffs must show that the discriminatory action was taken with a discriminatory purpose. This often involves demonstrating that the decision-makers acted with the intent to discriminate.

Official Link: Civil Rights Division | Section VI- Proving Discrimination- Intentional

Disparate Impact

Disparate impact refers to policies or practices that, while neutral on their face, disproportionately affect a particular group. Although proving disparate impact alone is not sufficient to establish a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, it can be used as evidence of discriminatory intent.

State Constitutions and Equal Protection

State-Level Protections

Many state constitutions contain their own equal protection clauses, which can provide additional protections against discrimination. State courts often interpret these provisions in ways that can offer broader protections than those available under the federal Constitution.

Official Link: Equal Protection Through State Constitutional Amendment

Case Studies


Vermont's constitution includes an equal protection clause that has been interpreted to provide robust protections against discrimination. Recent amendments have sought to further strengthen these protections.

Official Link: Should the Vermont Constitution be Amended to Include an Equal


Ohio's public defender commission has highlighted the importance of the state's equal protection clause in criminal law, ensuring that defendants receive fair treatment regardless of their background.

Official Link: Equal Protection | Ohio Public Defender Commission

Contemporary Issues

Affirmative Action

Affirmative action policies, designed to address historical inequalities, have been the subject of significant legal debate. The Supreme Court has upheld certain affirmative action programs while striking down others, emphasizing the need for such policies to be narrowly tailored to achieve their goals.

LGBTQ+ Rights

The Equal Protection Clause has been a critical tool in advancing LGBTQ+ rights. Landmark cases such as Obergefell v. Hodges have extended constitutional protections to same-sex couples, but ongoing legal battles continue to shape the landscape of LGBTQ+ rights.

Gender Equality

Gender equality remains a central issue in equal protection jurisprudence. Recent cases have addressed issues such as gender discrimination in the workplace, reproductive rights, and gender identity.


The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is a fundamental component of American constitutional law. It has played a crucial role in combating discrimination and ensuring that all individuals receive equal treatment under the law. Through landmark Supreme Court decisions, legislative actions, and ongoing legal battles, the Equal Protection Clause continues to shape the pursuit of equality and justice in the United States.

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Von Wooding

Von Wooding

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