What Is a Protected Class?

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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-sex marriage, or sexual orientation. In addition, many states have their own laws protecting more broadly-defined and inclusive classes of people.

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 cancer that is under control or in remission 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 sex.
  • 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 sex may be considered in employment decisions if being of a specific sex is a valid qualification for the work involved.

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. 

Sources and Further Reading