It's illegal to treat a person differently or badly because of some characteristic that's beyond the person's control. This is discrimination. The government protects several classes of people from discrimination by law, especially in the areas of employment and housing. Most states and even some municipalities have enacted their own statutes dealing with discrimination.
Age Is a Protected Class
Age discrimination is against the law, but only to an extent. Employers can't refuse to hire someone or terminate employment because of age, but this applies only to workers over 40 years old. The Age Discrimination Act also only works one way. It doesn't protect workers under age 40. It's perfectly legal to give an advantage to an older employee over a younger one.
Disabled Individuals Are Protected
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects disabled individuals against discrimination. Under the terms of the ADA, employers and landlords must accommodate a worker's or tenant's disability, unless doing so would present a severe hardship. For example, a large company might be required to install a wheelchair ramp in its place of business. The ADA applies this rule to public entities that employ more than 50 people. However, a small business would probably be exempt from an extreme expense.
Race Discrimination Is Illegal
Race is a protected class. This extends to skin color and to other physical characteristics. It also includes discrimination against someone who is associated with someone of another race, either through a personal relationship or a group or organization. Employers cannot refuse to hire or promote and landlords cannot refuse to rent to individuals based on race. Other entities, like schools, also cannot discriminate based on race.
Religious Beliefs Are Protected
You can't be treated differently or unfairly because of your faith. Both the Civil Rights Act and the First Amendment protect this right. Employers must make reasonable accommodations that allow you to practice your chosen religion, such as by giving you time off for holy days (although not necessarily with pay). If your religion requires you to dress in a certain way, your employer must allow it. You can't be turned away from housing or denied a mortgage because of your religion. Students can pray privately in schools.
Some Other Characteristics Are Protected
State and federal laws protect several other characteristics, including sex and national origin. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on marital status, family size, or income sources, with some exceptions. A landlord can reasonably decline to rent an efficiency unit to a family of six, and it's not illegal to refuse to rent to someone who cannot prove the source of his income. Although some states protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, the federal government does not.
A Civil Rights Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding protections against discrimination is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a civil rights lawyer.