What Is a Protected Class?

One pink chair in a row of blue chairs


The term “protected class” refers to groups of people who are legally protected from being harmed or harassed by laws, practices, and policies that discriminate against them due to a shared characteristic (e.g. race, gender, age, disability, or sexual orientation). These groups are protected by both U.S. federal and state laws.

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is the independent federal agency responsible for enforcing all federal anti-discrimination laws. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is assigned with the enforcement of these laws specifically as they apply to employment.

Key Takeaways

  • A protected class is a group of people sharing a common trait who are legally protected from being discriminated against on the basis of that trait.
  • Examples of protected traits include race, gender, age, disability, and veteran status.
  • U.S. anti-discrimination laws are enforced by both the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

What Are the Protected Classes?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA) and subsequent federal laws and regulations prohibited discrimination against individuals or groups of individuals because of particular traits. The following table displays each protected trait alongside the law/regulation that established it as such.

Protected Characteristic Federal Law Establishing Protected Status
Race Civil Rights Act of 1964
Religious belief Civil Rights Act of 1964
National origin Civil Rights Act of 1964
Age (40 years and up) Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1975
Sex* Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Civil Rights Act of 1964 
Pregnancy Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978
Citizenship Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986
Familial status Civil Rights Act of 1968
Disability status Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
Veteran status Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 and Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act
Genetic information Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008
*Note: “sex” has been interpreted to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

While not required by federal law, many private employers also have policies protecting their employees from discrimination or harassment based on their marital status, including same-gender marriage. In addition, many states have their own laws protecting more broadly-defined and inclusive classes of people.

Gender Class Protection

Since 1965, four presidents have issued executive orders which prohibit consideration of sex and gender attributes in employment decisions of the United States federal government and its contractors, eventually including both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 24, 1965, Executive Order 11246 established requirements for non-discriminatory practices in hiring and employment on the part of U.S. government contractors. It "prohibits federal contractors and federally assisted construction contractors and subcontractors, who do over $10,000 in Government business in one year from discriminating in employment decisions based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." It also requires contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, color, religion, sex or national origin."

Executive Order 11478, signed by U.S. President Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 1969, prohibited discrimination in the competitive service of the federal civilian workforce on certain grounds. The order was later amended to cover additional protected classes. Executive Order 11478 covered the federal civilian workforce, including the United States Postal Service and civilian employees of the United States Armed Forces. It prohibited discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, and age. It also required all departments and agencies to take affirmative steps to promote employment opportunities for those classes.

Executive Order 13087 was signed by U.S. President Bill Clinton on May 28, 1998, amending Executive Order 11478 to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the competitive service of the federal civilian workforce. The order also applies to employees of the government of the District of Columbia and the United States Postal Service. However, it does not apply to positions and agencies in the excepted service, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Signed by U.S. President Barack Obama on July 21, 2014, Executive Order 13672 amended two earlier executive orders to extend protection against discrimination in hiring and employment to additional classes. It prohibited discrimination in the civilian federal workforce based on gender identity and in hiring by federal contractors based on both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Discrimination vs. Harassment

Harassment is a form of discrimination. It is often, but not always, associated with the workplace. Harassment can include a wide range of actions such as racial slurs, derogatory remarks, or unwanted personal attention or touching.

While anti-discrimination laws do not prohibit acts like occasional offhand comments or teasing, harassment can become illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it results in a hostile work environment in which the victim finds it difficult or uncomfortable to work.

Examples of Discrimination Against Protected Classes

Persons who are members of the legally protected classes tend to face a vast number of examples of discrimination.

  • An employee who is undergoing treatment for a medical condition (for example, cancer) is treated less fairly because they have a “history of disability.”
  • A person is denied a marriage license when they attempt to marry a person of the same gender.
  • A registered voter is treated differently than other voters at a polling place because of their appearance, race, or national origin.
  • An employee who is over 40 years of age is denied a promotion because of their age, even though they are fully qualified for the job.
  • A transgender person is subjected to harassment or discrimination because of their identity.

During 2017, members of protected classes filled 84,254 charges of workplace discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). While charges of discrimination or harassment were filed by members of all protected classes, race (33.9%), disability (31.9%), and sex (30.4%) were filed most frequently. In addition, the EEOC received 6,696 charges of sexual harassment and obtained $46.3 million in monetary benefits for the victims.

What Classes Are Not Protected?

There are certain groups that are not treated as protected classes under anti-discrimination laws. These include:

  • Level of educational attainment
  • Income level or socio-economic classes, such “middle class”
  • Undocumented immigrants
  • Persons with a criminal history

Federal law strictly prohibits blatant discrimination against protected classes, but it does not absolutely bar employers from considering a person’s membership in a protected class under all circumstances. For example, a person’s gender may be considered in employment decisions if the job is for a bathroom attendant and the facilities' bathrooms are gender-segregated.

Another example deals with lifting requirements and if they are ableist. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that lifting up to 51 pounds can be a job requirement as long as lifting heavy items is an essential task. So, it is legal for a moving company to have lifting 50 pounds as a job requirement, but it would be illegal for a front desk assistant position to have a similar requirement. There is also much nuance in cases concerning lifting.

What Are ‘Immutable Characteristics’ in Anti-Discrimination Law?

In the law, the term “immutable characteristic” refers to any attribute considered impossible or difficult to change, such as race, national origin, or gender. Individuals claiming to have experienced discrimination because of an immutable characteristic will automatically be treated as members of a protected class. An immutable characteristic is the clearest way to define a protected class; these characteristics are given the most legal protection.

Sexual orientation was previously at the center of a legal debate about immutable characteristics. However, under today's anti-discrimination laws, sexual orientation has been established as an immutable trait.

History of the Protected Classes

The first officially recognized protected classes were race and color. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 prohibited discrimination “in civil rights or immunities...on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Act also barred discrimination in the making of contracts— include employment contracts—based on race and color.

The list of protected classes grew significantly with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination in employment based on race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. The Act also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), an independent federal agency empowered to enforce all existing and future civil rights laws as they apply to employment.

Age was added to the list of protected classes in 1967 with the passage of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The Act applies only to people age 40 and older.

In 1973, persons with disabilities were added to the list of protected classes, by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on disability in the employment of federal government employees. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extended similar protections to private-sector workers. In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act added virtually all Americans with disabilities to the list of protected classes. 

Sources and Further Reading

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Longley, Robert. "What Is a Protected Class?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 11, 2022, thoughtco.com/what-is-protected-class-4583111. Longley, Robert. (2022, June 11). What Is a Protected Class? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-protected-class-4583111 Longley, Robert. "What Is a Protected Class?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-protected-class-4583111 (accessed March 26, 2023).