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Civil Rights

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Overview of Civil Liberties & Rights

click for full sizeWhat are civil liberties?
Civil liberties are those fundamental freedoms that together guarantee the rights of free people and protect the people from improper government actions against them. The specific rights that together make up the civil liberties of the people of the United States are written in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Examples of civil liberties include freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the guarantee of a fair, unbiased trial.

What are substantive liberties?
Some of the restraints put on the government are substantive liberties, which limit what the government shall and shall not have the power to do, including establish a religion, quarter troops in private homes without consent, or seize private property without just compensation.

How do civil liberties differ from civil rights?
Although these two terms are often used interchangeably, scholars generally agree that civil liberties are those liberties that protect people from the government—those that guarantee the safety of people, their opinions, and their property from the government as listed in the Constitution. The term “civil rights,” on the other hand, is generally used to refer to acts of government that make constitutional guarantees real for all people, ensuring that they receive equal treatment under the law, as outlined by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Landmark civil rights legislation is found in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race or sex.

Does the Constitution grant Americans their civil rights and liberties?
No. It doesn't grant them, it only guarantees them. According to the Ninth Amendment, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The people of America had all their rights and liberties before they wrote the Constitution. The Constitution was formed, among other purposes, to secure the people's liberties—not only against foreign attack but also against oppression by their own government. The First Amendment to the Constitution, for example, does not give freedom of religion or speech to the people; rather, it prohibits Congress from passing any law interfering with freedom of religion, speech, and peaceful assembly.

What are some of the rights established in the original Constitution?
The Constitution strives to uphold several core democratic principles, one of which is the protection of individual rights and civil liberties. Thus, individual rights are at the heart of the Constitution, as expressed by the framers in the document's preamble with key phrases like “to establish Justice” and “to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” To establish justice, the Constitution makes no distinction as to the wealth or status of any person; all are equal before the law, and all are equally subject to judgment and punishment when they violate the law. The same holds true for civil disputes involving property, legal agreements, and business arrangements. The emphasis on personal liberty is one of the main features of the Constitution, and the framers were careful to protect the rights of all people by limiting the powers of the national and state governments. As a result, Americans are free to move from place to place; make their own decisions about jobs, religion, and political beliefs; and go to court for justice and protection when they feel these rights have been violated.

One inalienable right guaranteed by the Constitution is free speech, as well as freedom of expression, religion, and assembly. These rights are essential to the continuation of a democratic and free society.

What are inalienable rights?
Because the American Revolution was fought to preserve and expand the rights of the individual against the government, America's Founding Fathers boldly proclaimed these rights in the opening of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” In this document, the authors expressed their belief in certain inalienable, Godgiven rights that all people are inherently created with and entitled to enjoy simply because they are human beings, including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are not destroyed when civil society is created, and neither society nor government can remove or “alienate” them. Most democratic societies agree that inalienable rights include freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of assembly, and the right to equal protection before the law. Since these rights exist independently of government, they cannot be taken away by legislation nor are they subject to the whim of an electoral majority.

From CREDO The Handy American Government Answer Book

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