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.