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What Is an Equality Law?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2016
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An equality law is one that attempts to ensure equal legal treatment or protection of a designated group or class. Equality laws have a long and complex history, since there has rarely been a time in human history when absolutely all people in a jurisdiction were actually given and guaranteed equality before the law. There are many different types of equality law, which are usually created to cement protection of a group that has experienced unequal treatment under prior legal structures.

Many nations and legislative bodies declare the importance of equality as part of the fabric of their legislation. In the United States Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers clearly stated that “All men are created equal.” The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights likewise states that “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” Equality laws, as a concept, have existed at least since the days of ancient Greece, when the Athenian statesman Pericles proclaimed his pride in the fact that poverty and social standing did not bar equal access to Athenian law.

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Unfortunately, impassioned declarations of equality principles do not always translate to a comprehensive equality law. The Declaration of Independence was conveniently interpreted to refer solely to Caucasian, adult, land-owning men; the abolishment of slavery and granting of voting rights to women and people of color took an additional two centuries beyond the heartfelt Declaration. Even Pericles' much quoted funeral oration leaves out the fact that slaves, women, and children were afforded little equality in Athens or anywhere else in the Ancient World. Equality laws, therefore, are usually created in an attempt to reconcile legal codes with declarations of equality.

An equality law can codify equal treatment of any class or group of citizens in nearly any area covered by law. Labor laws, for instance, may prohibit employers to discriminate based on sex, sexual preference, race, age, disability status, or religious creed. Housing laws can prohibit landlords from similar discriminatory practices. Marriage equality laws can grant the same legal benefits to same sex couples as already exist for heterosexual couples. Voting laws can guarantee the right to vote to any adult citizen, regardless of race, gender, or religion.

The pursuit of total equality under the law is a continuing practice in the 21st century, even in countries that strongly support a national message of equality. Children's activist groups, for instance, argue that voting rights are arbitrarily and unfairly given only to adults, while those below the age limit are subject to the law even though they have no voice in the law. Feminist activist groups argue against laws that make it a sexual offense for women to sunbathe topless, while men are subject to no such law. The struggle over protected rights for gay and lesbian couples remains a hotly contested debate in the 21st century, perhaps creating the most clear example of the ongoing pursuit of fully comprehensive equality law.

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