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Among the many principles that form the foundation of the law is the principle of legal equality. As the name implies, it is the principle that requires each person to receive equal treatment under the law, or stated another way, requires equal protection under the law for everyone regardless of race, gender, religion, or any other defining characteristic. To what extent this principle is honored among legal systems across the world differs greatly. Long-standing cultural traditions have prevented equality in some nations, while intolerance has prevented equality in others.
The concept of legal equality is a core concept found in classical liberalism. Classical liberalism is a philosophy which was developed in the 19th century throughout western Europe and America. It operated on the belief in limited government and individual liberty. Classical liberalism places a great deal of emphasis on individual sovereignty, out of which comes the idea that all people are entitled to equality under the law.
The United States has been part of more than one movement to enforce the concept of legal equality. The Civil Rights Movement, the Native American Civil Rights Movement, and the Feminist Movement are all examples of individual groups that have fought for, and ultimately won, equality under the law within the United States. Under the laws of the United States, discrimination on the basis of sex, religious preference, race, or any of a number of other defining characteristics is prohibited.
On a global level, the concept of legal equality has been addressed through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. According to the UDHR, all member states are committed to "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion." As of 1976, enough nations had ratified the UDHR to make it an official part of international law, meaning that all member nations are obligated to follow the concepts and philosophies found therein. Although many nations around the world are still struggling with issues of legal equality, most are making an effort to change not just the laws of the country, but also the long-standing cultural traditions that prevent equality under the law as well. Law in many middle eastern countries, for example, that once prevented a woman from being able to inherit or own property have begun to change.