Equality in a constitutional democracy means equal justice under the law. No one is above or beyond the reach of the law, and no one is entitled to unfair advantages or subjected to unequal penalties based on the law. Three main examples of equality in a democracy are constitutionally guaranteed protection for equality of treatment according to the law, equality in fundamental human rights, and equality of citizenship.
Statements about equality of treatment under the law are found in the constitutions of every democratic state. For example, Article 29 of the Lithuanian constitution says: All people shall be equal before the law, the court, and other State institutions and officers. A person may not have his or her rights restricted in any way, or be granted any privileges, on the basis of his or her sex, race, nationality, language, origin, social status, religion, convictions, or opinions.
The Fifth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution guarantee legal equality as well. The due process clauses of the Fifth and 14th Amendments require that the federal and state governments must follow fair and equal legal procedures in matters pertaining to an individual’s right to life, liberty, and property. The 14th Amendment says, “No state shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Equality in the possession of fundamental human rights is another essential attribute of every constitutional democracy. This idea of equality was dramatically put forward in the 1776 Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed to the international community the emergence of a newly independent country, the United States of America. The declaration asserted a self-evident truth: that each person is born with equal possession of certain inherent rights, such as the right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Further, this declaration held, “That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”
The founders of the United States were not claiming that all individuals are equal in their personal attributes, such as physical strength, intelligence, or artistic talent. They were not saying that a government is established to enforce equality or uniformity in the way people think, act, or live. Rather, the founders were committed to establishing a government that would guarantee equally, to all individuals under its authority, security for liberty based on the rule of law. The idea of natural equality in rights, that every person inherently possesses fundamental rights stemming from his or her equal membership in the human species, has been expressed in the constitutions of democracies throughout the world.
Equality of citizenship is another characteristic of constitutional democracies today. There are not degrees of citizenship whereby, for example, some persons have first-class citizenship with superior rights and privileges relative to different classes of citizens with different rights. Thus, Article IV of the U.S. Constitution says, “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.” – John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide