Civil Rights Act of 1964

Civil Rights Act of 1964The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of the assassination of President Kennedy and as the civil rights movement continued its struggle for social equality. Although a bill prohibiting discrimination in the workplace had been introduced in Congress every year since 1943, the filibuster and other political tools had kept the proposed bills from being passed, and the same result seemed certain after President Kennedy introduced his highly controversial antidiscrimination Civil Rights Act in 1963. However, President Johnson was able to gain the support of influential senators in support of a version of the bill that was even stronger than what Kennedy had proposed. On June 10, 1964, after 57 days of debate due to a well-planned filibuster by the bill’s opponents, the bill’s supporters were able to amass the requisite two-thirds of the Senate to vote to end the filibuster, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. The act’s constitutionality was immediately challenged and upheld.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a comprehensive piece of legislation banning discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in numerous aspects of society, such as public schools and public accommodations, and a full discussion of the significance of the act could take volumes. However, as only Title VII is relevant to career development and issues in the workplace, it will be the sole focus of this writing.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to a wide range of employers due to its broad definition of person, which in part is a key component to the definition of employer. The definition of person includes, for example, governments, government agencies, labor unions, partnerships, corporations, mutual companies, trusts, and receivers. An employer must have at least 15 employees to be covered by the act.

Title VII was aimed at both prohibiting intentional discrimination and widening the door to employment opportunities. Title VII makes it “an unlawful employment practice for an employer…to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” It also prohibits employers from engaging in practices “to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

The language of Title VII has provided employees who believe they were subject to discrimination with an arsenal of legal claims and numerous methods of proving them. Two of the most commonly used claims are (1) an employee’s claim that he or she has suffered from disparate treatment and (2) its cousin, adverse or disparate impact. Under the disparate-treatment theory, the employee alleges that he or she has been treated differently from other employees due to his or her protected characteristic of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Disparate-treatment claims can be further divided into single-motive claims and mixed-motive claims. In both types of cases, the employer argues that the allegedly discriminatory act was based on a nondiscriminatory reason; in a single-motive claim, the employee alleges the act was solely motivated by discrimination, and in a mixed-motive claim, the employee alleges the employer was motivated by both legitimate and unlawful factors. A 1991 amendment to the Civil Rights Act addressed the uncertainty that had surrounded the mixed-motive cases until that time by clarifying that even if other legitimate factors also motivated the employer’s actions, the employer violated Title VII if the protected characteristic was a “motivating factor” in the employer’s act.

If an employee cannot establish intentional discrimination, another option is to bring a claim under the disparate-impact theory. The disparate-impact theory addresses the situation in which an employment practice or policy is neutral on its face, but as applied has a disproportional effect on a protected group in a manner not justified by business necessity. Examples include educational requirements, experience requirements, arrest and conviction records, or dress requirements. The disparate-impact theory was created in a 1971 Supreme Court case and remained a judicially created cause of action until the 1991 amendment to the Civil Rights Act, which specifically included practices that cause a disparate impact as unlawful. Statistical evidence is generally used to establish such claims.

Other than disparate-treatment and disparate-impact claims, Title VII provides claims that an employer has subjected the employee to a hostile environment, that the employer discriminated against the employee as retaliation for opposing a discriminatory practice, and that an employer has failed to accommodate the employee’s religious expression. In a hostile-environment claim, the employee alleges that the employer’s unwanted conduct has created an environment so pervasive that a reasonable person would find it hostile or abusive and that the employee bringing the claim did, in fact, find the environment abusive. The most common form of hostile-environment claim is based on one type of what has become known as sexual harassment (the other type of sexual harassment is the more clear-cut quid pro quo claim, which also violates Title VII). In a retaliation claim, the employee alleges that he or she was discriminated against for opposing a discriminatory practice or participating in an investigation of a potential Title VII claim. Finally, an employee has a distinct claim under Title VII if the employer failed to accommodate his or her religious expression when doing so would not have caused undue hardship to the employer.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which has been called the greatest civil rights statute since Reconstruction, has been amended several times, including a significant amendment in 1991. Over the years, the act has seen waves of strict construction and liberal interpretation by the courts. However, even under its strictest interpretation, there is no denying that the act was a major step toward equality in the workplace.

See also:


  1. Campbell, T. J. 1984. “Regression Analysis in Title VII Cases: Minimum Standards, Comparable Worth, and Other Issues Where Law and Statistics Meet.” Stanford Law Review 36:1299.
  2. Lamber, J. 1985. “Discretional Decisionmaking: The Application of Title VII’s Disparate Impact Theory.” University of Illinois Law Review 1985:869.
  3. Rossein, M. T. 2004. Employment Discrimination. Eagen, MN: West.