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The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) reflect the United States founders' desire for individual freedom and their opposition to the centralization of power. The Declaration contains the founders' belief that there are certain truths: that we are all created equal, that we have the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that the right to govern comes from the consent of the people. The Constitution explains the roles of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government and provides a system of checks and balances among these branches. Specific civil liberties and rights not mentioned in the Constitution are spelled out in the Bill of Rights. These documents reflect the founders' desire to preserve individual political freedoms.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. Freedom of expression is made up of the explicit rights of freedom of speech, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. During the two centuries since the adoption of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court and lower courts have attempted to interpret and define these freedoms through various court cases. It should be noted that these freedoms apply to all people who live in the United States, not just U.S. citizens.
The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion was established because many of the colonists who founded the United States came to America to escape religious persecution and government oppression. This country's founders wanted to prevent any one religion from dominating the government or imposing its will or beliefs on society as a whole. Two clauses in the First Amendment guarantee freedom of religion. The first part of this provision is known as the Establishment Clause, and the second part is known as the Free Exercise Clause. The establishment clause prohibits the government from passing laws that will establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. The courts have interpreted the establishment clause to accomplish the separation of church and state.
The free exercise clause prohibits the government from interfering with a persons practice of their religion. However, religious actions and rituals can be limited by civil and federal laws. For example, the 1878 Supreme Court case Reynolds v. United States found that the federal law prohibiting polygamy, which was challenged by a Mormon defendant, was constitutional. Polygamy was outlawed. Here are recent Supreme Court cases that involve the freedom of religion.
Freedom of speech is the right to speak out publicly or privately. This covers all forms of expression, including newspapers, magazines, books, television, radio, movies, and electronic documents. While the right to free speech is not absolute, its protection is broad. For example, it protects silence (e.g., right to refrain from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance), symbolic speech (e.g., the right to burn an American flag in protest), intellectual freedom (e.g., right to read). In most cases the First Amendment, does not protect speech that incites or provokes extreme violence. For example, it is illegal to yell "Fire!" in a movie theater. Be sure to check out the recent Supreme Court decisions that have to do with freedom of speech.
The courts have long struggled to determine whether the framers of the Constitution intended to differentiate press freedom from speech freedom. Most have concluded that freedom of the press derives from freedom of speech. Freedom of the press allows an individual to express themselves through publication. The Court has generally rejected requests to extend to the press privileges beyond those available to ordinary citizens.
Freedom of assembly is the right of people to gather peacefully to exchange ideas or to peacefully protest social, economic, or political conditions and demand reform. The Million Mom March is a recent example of assembly. People gathered around the country on Mother's Day 2000 to educate children and adults about the dangers of guns. Most public gatherings in the United States proceed without active interference by police or other officials. But sometimes police officers may make arrests when demonstrations threaten to turn violent. The right to assemble, however is not an absolute right. Most towns and cities can legally regulate the time, place, and manner of assembling. For example, a city may restrict a large demonstration to a particular area or time of day.
The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances guarantees people the right to ask the government to provide relief for a wrong through the courts or other governmental action. It works with the right of assembly to allow people to join together to seek change from the government.
The First Amendment is not the only change or addition to the Constitution that defines citizens' rights. Some of the other amendments in the Bill of Rights also define citizens' rights, such as the right to bear arms and the right to a trial by jury. (To learn more about the Bill of Rights, go to the Historical Documents section of this web site.)
It was noted above that the Declaration of Independence, states "That all men are created equal..." But in 1776 when this document was written, many blacks in America were enslaved. It took almost ninety years for the United States government to end slavery. Black Americans made significant gains in their struggle for equal rights during the Reconstruction, the 12-year period after the American Civil War. The 13th Amendment, adopted in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States. In 1868, the 14th Amendment made the former slaves citizens. It also guaranteed to all people "equal protection of the laws." The 15th Amendment, which became law in 1870, did not expressly grant black citizens the right to vote, but prohibited state and federal governments from denying this right based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
Although these amendments helped to strengthen the rights of Blacks in America, they were not successful in ending racial discrimination and injustice. During the late 1870's, white Americans increasingly disregarded the newly won rights of black Americans. In 1896, in the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld a Louisiana law requiring separate but equal accommodations for blacks and whites in railroad cars. Many Southern states used the "separate but equal" rule established in this case to segregate the races in public schools, establishments and transportation for over 50 years.
In 1954, the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education established that segregation in the public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. This event is sometimes noted as the first step in the Civil Rights Movement. Ten years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. This law bans discrimination because of a person's color, race, national origin, religion, or sex. The act primarily protects the rights of blacks and other minorities. It is one of the nation's strongest civil rights laws. The following resources describe the important people and events of the Civil Rights movement.
African Americans, of course, are not the only group in America's history that faced injustice. For example, American Indians were not granted citizenship rights until 1924, and it took until 1948 for some states to allow Native Americans to vote. Women did not have the right to vote until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified. (To learn more about voting rights go to the Elections section of this web site.)
In recent times, legislation has focused less on the rights of ethnic and racial groups. In 1980 the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act ensured that the rights of persons in institutions, such as government-run hospitals, nursing homes and prison, are protected against unconstitutional conditions. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) has helped strengthen the rights people with disabilities.