Overview of federal anti-discrimination laws

The United States has seen three eras of significant federal anti-discrimination legislation: (1) the Reconstruction era, (2) the 1960s; and (3) the 1990s.

1. The Reconstruction era

After the Civil War, Congress used the newly ratified Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to pass a number of statutes in order to benefit the recently freed slaves. The first major anti-discrimination employment statute was Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prohibited employment discrimination based on race. Several years later, Congress passed Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which prohibited certain types of public sector employment discrimination (such as race, national origin, sex, and religion).

However, the Supreme Court at the time invalidated most of the protections brought about by these statutes, and, with a few notable exceptions, anti-discrimination legislation and civil rights in general lay dormant for almost a century.

2. The 1960s

The 1960s represented a second era—a second Reconstruction—during which significant federal anti-discrimination legislation took place. It was during this time that Congress passed the country’s most comprehensive and potent weapon against employment discrimination: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). Title VII outlawed employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

Following the heels of Title VII, Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”), which outlawed age discrimination. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination against disabled federal employees and employees of certain government contractors. Perhaps emboldened by the civil rights movement, the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, not only upheld these civil rights, but also revived the earlier Reconstruction-era laws.

3. 1990s

The 1990s represent the third era of significant anti-discrimination legislation. In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), which not only prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, but also imposes an affirmative obligation on employers to accommodate applicants and employees with known disabilities.

In 1991, Congress amended Title VII to restore and strengthen the country’s civil rights laws in order to further deter unlawful harassment and discrimination in the workplace. In 1993, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), which required covered employers to give employees temporary leave for medical reasons, for the birth or adoption of a child, and for the care of a child, spouse, or parent who has a serious health condition.

4. 2000s—a fourth era of federal anti-discrimination legislation?

On May 21, 2008, President George Walker Bush signed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (“GINA”) into law. On September 25, 2008, President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADA Amendments Act” or “Act”). The Act, which went into effect on January 1, 2009, was specifically designed to reject the holdings of several Supreme Court decisions that had incorrectly narrowed the broad scope of protection originally intended by Congress to be afforded under the ADA.

When President Barack Obama assumed office in 2009, the first act he signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was initiated by Congress in reaction to the Supreme Court’s controversial 2007 decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.