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US law, like our democracy itself, has evolved over time. We’ve always prided ourselves on a fair judicial system and for being on the vanguard of rights for our citizens; after all, this and similar disputes are what led to the revolutionary founding of this country in the first place. Still, in spite of the efforts of many of our lawmakers, leaders and regular citizens, we were not and still are not anywhere near perfect when it comes to civil rights. In fact, it’s clear that although great progress has been made, we still have a way to go. Let’s take a look at some of the key points on civil rights and civil liberties, in the spirit of increasing awareness of the aspects of the law we citizens might otherwise take for granted.

Civil rights are, in a nutshell, the basic guarantees that the law provides to all citizens ensuring equal treatment under the law. These laws, which tend to be large pieces of federal-level legislation, are put in place to ensure that no individual or group of people can be legally discriminated against. Although these rights are often considered to originate at the constitutional level (thus reaching all the way back to the country’s founding), they often need to be clarified by further interpretation in the courts. Thus any efforts to deny equal treatment in areas like education and the workplace, when brought before courts, can be found “unconstitutional” and made illegal. This is the incredibly useful but sometimes messy system whereby laws are changed and civil rights are expanded.

Civil liberties make up a broader spectrum of the legal world, but they have a lot in common with the concept of “civil rights.” Basically, if a right ensures equal treatment under the law according to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, the civil liberties associated are an outgrowth of the principles and rules enumerated in the same founding era, and interpreted by the courts since then. Civil liberties govern aspects of the law like free speech, voting law, marriage equality and more, taking the concept of freedom and equality under the law into its broader scope. If the law says you’re equal, then you’re equal in certain fundamental ways, and those ways are what’s meant by your “civil liberties.”

So how do these concepts work when put into practice? Basically, in the form of a lawsuit or legal action that arises as a response to an alleged violation. It is the court’s job to then determine if a person or group’s civil rights have been violated, and to make an appropriate judgment. For instance, if a member of an ethnic minority is barred from attending a certain public school, or is made less likely to get a certain job, then the basic principle of equal treatment under the law has been violated. In this case, the discriminated-against party has the right to file a claim with the government, file a lawsuit in civil court, or seek restitution through negotiations with the defendant. Knowing that the law is on the side of equal rights means that the matter can be resolved through the court system or through attorney mediation. It is a guarantee of our democratic system, and one that cannot and should not be underestimated or forgotten.