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Equal Protection

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that "the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment commands that no . . . person [shall be denied] the equal protection of the laws, which is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike." Constitutional doctrines are multifaceted, and entire textbooks have been devoted to the Equal Protection Clause. The following is only a brief overview.

Equal protection means an equal application of the law, including enactment and enforcement. Therefore, no discriminatory laws or laws directed at one group of people only may be enacted. Laws forcing racial segregation in schools are historic forms of laws violating equal protection. Equal protection applies to other groups as well. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that a state may not require a home for the mentally disabled to obtain a special use permit when other residences—like fraternity houses and apartment buildings—did not have to obtain such a permit.

The Equal Protection Clause is distinguishable from the right to due process. The equal protection doctrine is applied to determine if a law classifying different groups that are similarly situated affects the groups in an unequal manner. Again, the racial segregation of schools is an example where, by using race as a category in a law, similar groups (students) were affected in a different manner (adequacy of education). On the other hand, due process requires examining the law’s effect on a certain right, even when it is applied equally to all persons, such as how an exception for getting a search warrant affects your right to privacy.

The courts, in an equal protection analysis, look to see if the law:

  • makes a classification based on race or national origin
  • makes a classification based on gender
  • makes a classification based on a factor not previously listed

Depending on where the law falls on this spectrum, it is scrutinized strictly, intermediately or on a rational basis. Thus, laws relating to race require a compelling state interest to justify their enactment. This test is difficult to pass, and such laws are generally declared unconstitutional. Other laws only require a rational basis related to some governmental interest, which is generally not too difficult to show; however, no law classifying a group of people may be based on "moral disapproval."

For instance, laws requiring students to attend school are not based on a race, nationality or gender classification, and the state only has to show a basic reason for the law. A student can complain that his or her civil rights are being violated because only students are forced to comply with the law. However, since the classification is "student," the state’s interest in providing an education to students is a rational basis for the law.

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