The phrase "Rights for Civil" is a translation of Latin ius civis (rights of a citizen). Roman citizens could be either free (libertas) or servile (servitus), but they all had rights in law. After the Edict of Milan in 313, these rights included the freedom of religion; however in 380, the Edict of Thessalonica required all subjects of the Roman Empire to profess Catholic Christianity. Roman legal doctrine was lost during the Middle Ages, but claims of universal rights could still be made based on Christian doctrine. According to the leaders of Kett's Rebellion (1549), "all bond men may be made free, for God made all free with his precious blood-shedding."
In the 17th century, English common law judge Sir Edward Coke revived the idea of rights based on citizenship by arguing that Englishmen had historically enjoyed such rights. The Parliament of England adopted the English Bill of Rights in 1689. It was one of the influences drawn on by George Mason and James Madison when drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. The Virginia declaration is the direct ancestor and model for the U.S. Bill of Rights (1789).
The removal by legislation of a civil right constitutes a "civil disability". In early 19th century Britain, the phrase "civil rights" most commonly referred to the issue of such legal discrimination against Catholics. In the House of Commons support for civil rights was divided, with many politicians agreeing with the existing civil disabilities of Catholics. The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 restored their civil rights.
In the 1860s, Americans adapted this usage to newly freed blacks. Congress enacted civil rights acts in 1866, 1871, 1875, 1957, 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1991.