I read another comment on a weblog today about how the Constitution "gives" us rights. I wish there was a way to slap every person who thinks that up side the head with a clue-by-four. It just ain't so.
Now before all of you Constitutional scholars out there jump all over me about the so-called "Bill of Rights", I want to explain to you something that you should have gotten in seventh-grade Civics class in public school. The Bill of Rights DOES NOT GRANT ANY RIGHTS. What it does is say that the Government cannot abridge the "unalienable" rights of a free citizen.
The people who actually wrote our Constitution believed that free men were born with rights, and that these rights came from their Creator - God. There were too many people alive then who still remembered the treatment the colonists had received at the hands of George III. Before they would accept the new Constitution, they wanted an ironclad guarantee (or as close as you can get in politics) that the rights they had fought for and won during the War of Independence would not be usurped by the new government.
This is why each of the first ten Amendments to the Constitution LIMITS the power of the Federal government.
Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
There are three clauses here, beginning with the prohibition of Congress against making any laws either establishing a national religion, or prohibiting the free exercise of any religion. Today, this
particular clause is under attack by those that demand a 'wall of separation' between "church and state", which is not the purpose of this amendment. "God" and "state" can coexist. It is NOT the purpose of this amendment to exclude religion from any public or private function. The only prohibition is the establishment of a State religion, or the State of prohibiting the free exercise of religion. ANY ACTION that either attempts to establish a State religion, or to restrict the free exercise of ANY religion is UNCONSTITUTIONAL. The ACLU can't seem to understand that. What is NOT allowed is the use of force or coercion to obtain a conversion, or to punish someone solely based on their religious beliefs.
The second clause states that the federal government cannot abridge the right of the people to say whatever they want, just about anywhere they want to, or to publish whatever they want. Just because you CAN
say it, or print it, doesn't mean it's always wise to do so. Another person may take your words, written or spoken, as a personal attack upon them, their beliefs, or their actions. In some instances, they have recourse in the courts. Defamation, outright lies, slander, and libel can result in a judgement against the speaker. See the last few paragraphs.
The third clause simply says that the people have the right to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government to correct what the people believe are legitimate complaints. When the government doesn't listen, see Amendment 2.
Amendment 2: A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
We as a people as a whole constitute the "militia of the common". In most states, every free male over the age of 16 and under the age of 60 was expected to be a member of the militia, with few exceptions. The average militiaman was expected to provide a weapon and ammunition in support of the "common good". There is another reason for the militia, also, one few current politicians dare discuss. The militia was the last, best hope against a tyrannical central government, whether at the local, state, or national level. This is one reason the clause "against all enemies, foreign and domestic", is in the US military oath of enlistment. It's also why many dictators and those who pretend to excessive power work feverishly to disarm the average citizen. It's the
first step toward totalitarian power and dictatorship, regardless of where it occurs.
Amendment 3: No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
One of the problems the US citizens had with George III was his penchant to quarter troops in the homes of average citizens -- sometimes with the citizens remaining in the homes, and sometimes with their being expelled. This amendment specifically says the federal government cannot do that except with the approval of the owner, or if in time of war, as by law. This particularly hated practice is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence as one of the reasons for our dissolution of bonds with the British monarchy.
Amendment 4: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall be issued, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The government is restricted in its ability to attack you, or seize anything that's yours, without due process, except when they can convince a judge that there's a very good chance you've broken the law. That doesn't mean that they suspect you of breaking the law, but that they have evidence to link you to a crime. Even then, they can only take what they have sworn to a judge is evidence against you. They can't take "everything", although the lines have gotten a bit blurry lately.
Amendment 5: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.
Here the government is limited in how it can treat citizens it might suspect of a crime. If the government suspects you of a crime, they have to get a grand jury to issue an indictment. Without that, they have to "catch you in the act", or provide a very good reason to ignore this particular step. Doing so may, and frequently does, result in a judge dismissing the case for improper behavior on the part of the arresting authority. The military has a slightly different system, but it still recognizes that there must be probable cause to hold you accountable. This amendment also provides protection against being tried for the same crime twice, and against self-incrimination.
Amendment 6: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of council for his defense.
Government MUST tell you what you're being accused of. You also have the right to see the evidence being used against you, the right to confront the witnesses against you, and to be able to subpoena witnessed in your favor. You're also guaranteed a speedy and public trial, the right to an attorney, and the right to have the trial in the state and district where the alleged crime was committed.
Amendment 7: In suits at common law, where the value of the controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
"Common law" is mostly civil law, as opposed to criminal law, or local laws like registering your dog. You have
the right to a trial by jury. You also can't be tried for the same offense again.
Amendment 8: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Again, Government is constrained in what treatment I can use against the citizen.
Amendment 9: The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
You may have additional rights that the government also cannot abuse. Just because they aren't listed (enumerated) here doesn't mean they don't exist. The problem is convincing the government that they DO exist, and how the government is limited in responding to them.
Amendment 10: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the People.
THIS IS THE MOST ABUSED AMENDMENT TO THE CONSTITUTION, virtually ignored by the Federal Government. The Constitution sets out specific, limited roles the federal government is supposed to have responsibility for. Anything else is supposed to be left to the States, or to the people. We know how well THAT turned out! Another reason for that pesky Second Amendment.
There is one other, VERY important thing that needs to be said about the exercise of the rights of the citizen: the exercise of ANY right carries with it an implied RESPONSIBILITY to act wisely, and in a way protective of the rights of every other citizen. Failing to act responsibly has led to government over-reach into the affairs of all of us.
Today these rights are being assaulted from all sides by people who think they know better than our founding fathers, who actually had to FIGHT for their freedom against a very mighty foe.
Our form of government was created to serve a "morally upright" citizenry. In fact, it is strongly based on the Judeo-Christian heritage of our founding fathers, and on their understanding of both rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Today's citizen is hot for his rights, but not so keen on accepting the responsibility that goes with them.