The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is arguably the most important provision in our Constitution when it comes to protecting our civil rights. Section 1 of the 14th Amendment reads:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
There are so many important issues addressed in this section of the 14th Amendment that it is impossible to discuss all of them in a short blog post. Historically, the two most important clauses though have come to be known as the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause.
In a technical sense, the Due Process Clause has come to give real backbone to the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 8th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Without this clause, only the Federal government would be prohibited from violating these provisions of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has held that the amendment’s Due Process Clause incorporates all of the substantive protections of these Amendments and makes them applicable to the States.
The Due Process Clause prohibits state and local governments from depriving people (individual and corporations) of life, liberty, or property without certain steps being taken. The Equal Protection Clause requires each state to provide equal protection under the law to all people it deals with.
Section 1 of the 14th Amendment has also come to define who is naturally a citizen of this country. As the first line of the Section reads, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” The Civil Rights Act of 1866 granted U.S. citizenship to all persons born in the United States. The provision became part of the 14th Amendment to prevent the Supreme Court from ruling the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to be unconstitutional for lack of congressional authority to enact such a law or a future Congress from altering it by a mere majority vote. The seminal case interpreting this provision is United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898).
Mess with the 14th Amendment and you mess with your civil rights.