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Equal Protection Clause: History and Analysis

Darby McNally, Jennifer Williams
  • Author
    Darby McNally

    Darby is an educator with a master's in middle level education and a bachelor's in journalism.

  • Instructor
    Jennifer Williams

    Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

Explore the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Learn the definition and analysis of the clause, and examine how it offers equal protection under the law. Updated: 03/08/2022

What is the Equal Protection Clause?

What is the Equal Protection Clause? Ratified in 1868, the Equal Protection Clause is the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This clause guarantees that every citizen of the country is afforded equal protection under the law. The definition of equal protection is the extension of rights to all citizens, regardless of race, gender, class, or sexuality.

Background of the Equal Protection Clause

The Equal Protection Clause guarantees that every citizen has protection under the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments guarantee rights such as freedom of speech and the right to a speedy and public trial. Prior to the Equal Protection Clause, African Americans were not guaranteed the protections set forth in the Bill of Rights. The addition of the Equal Protection Clause to the Constitution came after the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was passed by Congress to define citizenship. Though the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was not put into effect until after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, it impacted the creation of the Equal Protection Clause. The Equal Protection Clause needed constitutional backing because the Federal Government feared that former Confederacy would ignore the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

The Equal Protection Clause

The Equal Protection Clause is included within the Fourteenth Amendment and provides that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. The intent of the Bill of Rights was to extend to individuals protections from the United States federal government. Therefore, the states, in some circumstances, had different levels of protections for individuals from those offered via the federal government.

The Fourteenth Amendment was enacted to apply all of the rights included within the Bill of Rights and other amendments to the states and was done under the premise that everyone deserved equal protections under the laws regardless of where they lived or what color of skin they had. The initial push for the creation of the clause was to support and enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 guaranteed to all citizens the rights that had already been extended to white citizens.

In 1866, since the states did not have many restrictions placed on them by the United States Constitution, the federal government had concerns that the states would not comply with the act without some sort of constitutional backing. Therefore, the Equal Protection Clause was created in order to validate and help enforce the act by applying the Constitution to the states.

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  • 1:41 History After Ratification
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Equal Protection Clause Simplified

When simplified, the Equal Protection Clause provides legal backing when enforcing civil rights in the United States. After the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, states could no longer uphold or pass laws that stripped African Americans of their legal protections. Exactly what protections were included in the Fourteenth Amendment? The clause states that any person born or naturalized in the United States is unconditionally protected by all laws. It also exclaims that no state laws may be created to infringe upon this protection. In addition to providing protection under the law, the Equal Protection Clause also guarantees due process for every citizen, meaning that no person can be deprived of life, liberty, or property without the proper legal proceedings.

When a person or party asserts that their legal protections have been infringed upon, the court will scrutinize the actions of the government with one of the following methods of scrutiny.

  • Strict scrutiny: the highest level of scrutiny applied to equal protection cases. It requires that the government display a compelling interest in creating a law as well as narrowly tailoring that law to fit its purpose.
  • Intermediate scrutiny: requires that the government provide less proof of a law's necessity than strict scrutiny requires. The government must prove that it enacted a law with an important objective, and that the law is substantially related to achieving that objective.
  • Rational basis scrutiny: the lowest level of scrutiny applied to equal protection cases. Unlike strict and intermediate scrutiny, rational basis scrutiny requires that the individual, not the government, prove that a law infringes upon rights guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause.

Equal Protection Analysis

The Equal Protection Clause was put into place to ensure that all citizens are granted the same treatment under the Constitution. Analysis of the clause has led to many interpretations of its purpose, but its initial purpose was to ensure that African Americans were protected by laws that already applied to white Americans. Because it allows citizens to file lawsuits against the government when their rights are infringed upon, the Fourteenth Amendment was very controversial at the time of its ratification. States passed legislation that bypassed the amendment to continue to discriminate against African Americans.

The United States government is set up in a way so that there is a system of checks and balances. Checks and balances is defined as a regulation of power within the government to assure that power is divided equally, both between and within the federal and state governments. When a state implements a law that may infringe upon the rights of a group of people, an individual or group can challenge the law in the state courts. If the case is lost in the state courts, the individual or group may challenge the state in a federal court.

One instance of this is the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Plessy, an African American man from Louisiana, challenged the segregation laws implemented in the state and other southern states after the Civil War. He argued that his arrest and charge for entering a whites only train car violated the Equal Protection Clause. In states where segregation was implemented, African Americans and white Americans were required to use separate public facilities, like bathrooms, trains, and restaurants. Often, the facilities used by African Americans were not held to the same standard of care as the facilities used by white citizens. Plessy first challenged the laws in the Louisiana state court system but lost. He then challenged the state of Louisiana in the federal court system, all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found that separate facilities for African Americans and white Americans did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. This set the precedent for legalized segregation, also known as the Separate but Equal doctrine, that persevered in the southern states for quite some time, which weakened the Equal Protection Clause.


A Black man waits at a segregated bus stop in 1940.

Segregation at a bus stop in North Carolina in 1940.


In 1954, a landmark Supreme Court case questioned the legality of the "Separate but Equal" doctrine. In Brown v. Board of Education, Oliver Brown, an African American father with a daughter in a segregated public Kansas school, argued that his daughter and other African American school children should be allowed to attend white American specific schools, which were better funded than the African American schools. Because the facilities were not equal, the court ruled that Kansas schools violated the Equal Protection Clause by segregating their public schools by race and required desegregation. Although the ruling only applied to public school segregation, it implied that other forms of segregation were also unconstitutional and laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Accordingly, Brown v. Board of Education overturned the rulings of Plessy v. Ferguson.

Both Plessy and Brown were cases that resulted from individuals challenging a state's laws.

What was the Main Point of the Fourteenth Amendment?

The main point of the Fourteenth Amendment was to redefine citizenship in the United States, and extend laws to all individuals fitting that definition of a citizen. The Fourteenth Amendment contains five sections, all of which relate specifically to the rights of African Americans:

History After Ratification

After the clause was ratified, or made a law by Congress, all of the amendments were applied to the states in an effort to legally force the states to treat people equally. Therefore, states who were still attempting to pass state legislation to prevent different minority groups from voting (or any of the other amendments as time passed) had to stop.

Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court case that memorialized the 'separate but equal' doctrine, was decided in 1896. This case upheld laws that enforced segregation in schools, modes of transportation and commercial establishments. The Supreme Court decided that this was not covered under the guise of the Equal Protection Clause. This segregation, or separation, was constitutional so long as both were equal.

This 'separate but equal' standard was law until it was challenged again in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which held that even if separate schools are equal, the negative impact of the separation on the races in the minds of the people was not repairable. Brown, having interpreted the Equal Protection Clause differently, replaced Plessy, and thereafter schools were to be desegregated. Eventually, the Equal Protection Clause was interpreted by the courts to protect voting rights of all citizens, statutes involving housing and individuals seeking higher education.

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Video Transcript

The Equal Protection Clause

The Equal Protection Clause is included within the Fourteenth Amendment and provides that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. The intent of the Bill of Rights was to extend to individuals protections from the United States federal government. Therefore, the states, in some circumstances, had different levels of protections for individuals from those offered via the federal government.

The Fourteenth Amendment was enacted to apply all of the rights included within the Bill of Rights and other amendments to the states and was done under the premise that everyone deserved equal protections under the laws regardless of where they lived or what color of skin they had. The initial push for the creation of the clause was to support and enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 guaranteed to all citizens the rights that had already been extended to white citizens.

In 1866, since the states did not have many restrictions placed on them by the United States Constitution, the federal government had concerns that the states would not comply with the act without some sort of constitutional backing. Therefore, the Equal Protection Clause was created in order to validate and help enforce the act by applying the Constitution to the states.

History After Ratification

After the clause was ratified, or made a law by Congress, all of the amendments were applied to the states in an effort to legally force the states to treat people equally. Therefore, states who were still attempting to pass state legislation to prevent different minority groups from voting (or any of the other amendments as time passed) had to stop.

Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court case that memorialized the 'separate but equal' doctrine, was decided in 1896. This case upheld laws that enforced segregation in schools, modes of transportation and commercial establishments. The Supreme Court decided that this was not covered under the guise of the Equal Protection Clause. This segregation, or separation, was constitutional so long as both were equal.

This 'separate but equal' standard was law until it was challenged again in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which held that even if separate schools are equal, the negative impact of the separation on the races in the minds of the people was not repairable. Brown, having interpreted the Equal Protection Clause differently, replaced Plessy, and thereafter schools were to be desegregated. Eventually, the Equal Protection Clause was interpreted by the courts to protect voting rights of all citizens, statutes involving housing and individuals seeking higher education.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 5 sections of the 14th Amendment?

The first section of the 14th Amendment is the Equal Protection Clause. Section two of the amendment eliminated the three-fifths rule, which counted every Black man as three-fifths of a white man, and section three prevented members of the Confederacy from holding office. Section four of the amendment prevents former slave owners from collecting debts for their financial losses after the war, and section five gives Congress the power to enforce the contents of the Amendment.

What is the 14th Amendment in simple terms?

The 14th Amendment is an extension of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution. It ensures that all citizens are granted equal protection under the law.

Who does the Equal Protection Clause protect?

The Equal Protection Clause protects every citizen of the United States, affording each the same protection under the laws of the Constitution.

What does the Equal Protection Clause prohibit?

The Equal Protection Clause prohibits the deprivation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without due process of law.

What is the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution?

The Equal Protection Clause is included in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and guarantees that every citizen of the country is afforded equal protection under the law

What would be an example of equal protection of the laws?

An example of equal protection of the laws is the extension of the right to vote to all United States citizens over the age of 18, regardless of race or gender.

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