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What is the Equal Protection Clause?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The equal protection clause is a section of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution that says that states cannot, “deny to any person within [their] jurisdiction the equal protection of [their] laws.” This clause is designed to prevent the passage of discriminatory state laws that deny equal rights to people in similar circumstances, but of different classes. For example, if a state passed a law that welfare benefits would only be paid to white people, that law would be considered invalid because it discriminates on the basis of race.

The 14th Amendment was passed in 1868, in the immediate wake of the Civil War. One of the motivations for its passage was a series of “Black Laws” passed in the Southern states in response to Emancipation. These laws denied black Americans the opportunity to own property or businesses, and curtailed a number of other legal rights as well. In response, the federal government determined that in addition to protecting people from discrimination on a federal level, there was also an obligation to ensure that states did not discriminate.

This law does not mean that everyone in the United States is treated equally. In tests of the equal protection clause, it has been recognized that states pass discriminatory laws all the time, but that these laws have a rational basis. Restricting the ages when people can drive, drink, enlist in the military, and engage in other activities are all examples of laws that would pass a rational basis test.

If there is a belief that a law does not have a rational basis and could potentially violate the equal protection clause, it is subjected to strict scrutiny. The goal is to determine whether the law discriminates against people in similar circumstances on the basis of class. Thus, someone challenging why government benefits are offered to people with disabilities and not to non-disabled people will be unlikely to win, as these two groups are clearly in different circumstances. If, however, disability benefits were only made available to people of a certain race, religion, or gender, there might be grounds for a challenge under the equal protection clause.

As American jurisprudence has evolved, so has the equal protection clause. The civil rights movement led to a radical shift in the interpretation of the law, pushing for an end to concepts like “separate but equal.” Views in American courts continue to change with American society. Periodically, notable challenges to state laws invoke the equal protection clause, occasionally setting precedents for the future.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By hamje32 — On Feb 15, 2012

@MrMoody - Yeah, everyone remembers the hanging chads. It begs the question, if we ever have another recount election, how can we avoid the accusation that recounts are not being fair across the board?

Bush versus Gore set a precedent. As a practical matter, it’s impossible to ensure that all counties are doing the recounts the same way, because they may have different voting machines. Anyway, let’s hope that kind of thing never happens again.

The issue of the day seems to be whether to legalize gay marriage. No doubt supporters invoke the equal protection clause in their defense. The problem is that in 1996 Congress and President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being between one man and one woman. The Supreme Court would have to undo that law if it wanted to legalize gay marriage.

By MrMoody — On Feb 15, 2012

I heard about the the fourteenth amendment when it gained national exposure in the famous court case of Bush versus Gore in 2000. Everyone remembers the recount and the much maligned “hanging chads” of voter ballots as officials attempted to determine who the voters intended to vote for.

Bush argued from the equal protection clause that voting standards varied from county to county, with some counties having more relaxed standards than others. At issue was determining the “intent” of voters with some of the ballots that seemed difficult to decipher.

Each county, Bush argued, had its own approach for resolving the issue of intent. Whether you agree with the outcome of that election, Bush won because the Supreme Court agreed (mostly) that the equal protection clause was being violated in the recount efforts. Personally, I believe the arguments were valid.

By sunnySkys — On Feb 14, 2012

@Monika - Laws against gay marriage seem wrong and discriminatory to me too, but I'm not sure marriage is really a benefit. I guess only time will tell how federal law is going to go on that one.

I actually have a sneaking suspicion there may be a few more laws that wouldn't really stand up to equal protection clause analysis. I know during the 2012 election season there was a public outcry about increased voter identification requirements.

On the surface the law seems reasonable, but it could actually be considered discriminatory to young people who are voting out of state or people who don't have access to resources to get proper identification.

By Monika — On Feb 14, 2012

@JaneAir - Despite equal protection clause cases, there are still discriminatory laws in many states that many people support. The laws I'm referring to are the ones that specifically bar gay people from getting married.

In my opinion, marriage is a benefit. It allows two people to make a public commitment to one another, make medical decisions if one of them is incapacitated, and share medical benefits from one spouses job.

Many states deny this benefit to people based on their sexual orientation, which to me seems wrong and unconstitutional. I'm wondering if these ridiculous laws will eventually by challenged on the basis of the equal protection clause.

By JaneAir — On Feb 13, 2012

I think it's sad that we even had to pass a Constitution Equal Protection Clause like this. I know it was passed a long time ago, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there are still some states that would pass discriminatory laws if they could get away with it.

I guess it's lucky for all of the citizens of the United States that this clause is part of the Constitution.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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