Equal Protection refers to the idea that a governmental body may not deny people equal protection of its governing laws. The governing body state must treat an individual in the same manner as others in similar conditions and circumstances.
It is important to acknowledge that a government is allowed to discriminate against individuals, as long as the discrimination satisfies the equal protection analysis outlined below, and described in full detail in this Santa Clara Law Review article.
The Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause requires the United States government to practice equal protection. The Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause requires states to practice equal protection.
Equal protection forces a state to govern impartially—not draw distinctions between individuals solely on differences that are irrelevant to a legitimate governmental objective. Thus, the equal protection clause is crucial to the protection of civil rights.
Equal Protection Analysis
When an individual believes that either the federal government or a state government has violated their guaranteed equal rights, that individual is able to bring a lawsuit against that governmental body for relief.
Based on the type of discrimination alleged, the individual will first need to prove that the governing body actually discriminated against the individual. The individual will need to prove that the governing body's action resulted in actual harm to them. After proving this, the court will typically scrutinize the governmental action in one of several three ways to determine whether the governmental body's action is permissible: these three methods are referred to as strict scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, and rational basis scrutiny. The court will determine which scrutiny the individual will be subject to, relying on legal precedent to determine which level of scrutiny to use. It is important to note that courts have combined elements of two of the three tests to create an ad hoc test.
For more on equal protection, see this Harvard Law Review article, this University of Pennsylvania Law Review article, and this Columbia University Law Review article.
[Last updated in November of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]