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Equal protection of the laws refers to the idea that all people must be treated equally by the laws. In other words, there cannot be laws that are different for one group of people than for some other group of people. This sounds simple, but it is not really that simple or straightforward.
For example, we have laws that say that women may not serve in combat positions in the military. This clearly does not treat men and women the same. We also have laws that say that people of the same sex may not marry one another. This does not treat them the same as people who wish to marry members of the opposite sex. However, both of these laws remain valid.
So the courts have to figure out which classifications are valid and which are not -- when is it okay to treat different groups of people different before the law.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes the so called, “Equal Protection Clause” which provides that states may not deny people the equal protection of the laws. The practical effect of this has been not the outright abolition of any law that treats different people differently, but rather to expose such laws to judicial scrutiny which may then lead to a declaration that they are unconstitutional and therefore, void.
The court has given rise to different levels of scrutiny that will be applied when a law appears to violate the equal protection clause. Laws which treat people differently on the basis of race, religion, or national origin, or which burden fundamental rights, receive the highest level of judicial scrutiny. These are almost always struck down. Laws which treat people differently because of gender or illegitimacy receive slightly lower levels of scrutiny. There are, after all, real and legitimate differences between men and women and the government may well have valid reasons for wanting to treat people differently based upon these differences (for example, a major division in the way laws treat men versus women may be based upon the fact that only women are capable of becoming pregnant.)
Finally, the lowest level of scrutiny relates to laws which treat people differently but do not do so on the basis of one of the suspect classes (race, religion, national origin, gender, etc.) and do not burden fundamental rights. This lowest level of scrutiny demands only that the government advance some rational basis for the law at issue. This "rational basis" scrutiny is historically easy to defend against, but the government will not always be successful. For example, if a state cannot prove that its anti-sodomy law has any basis other than an irrational fear and hatred of homosexuals, that law will not pass even the rational basis test.
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