Appreciate Your Bill of Rights
Celebrate Our 223rd Bill of Rights Day
December 13, 2014
As Americans, we love to proclaim our rights. We expect our government to honor them. But we don’t have as many rights as many people think we do. Too many just don’t bother to read the Bill of Rights because our schools do a poor job of creating responsible citizens.
Monday, December 15, 2014 marks the 223rd anniversary of our Bill of Rights. The day usually passes without much fanfare, yet the Bill has been protecting us for more than two centuries.
Our founders wrote the Constitution in 1787. It became law after the states ratified it in 1789. The Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution — the heart of our nation – and it is law. The amendments are simply changes or additions to the original text.
Before and during the Revolution, the British government often violated people’s civil rights. Some of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 wanted our Constitution to contain a specific list of our rights, to protect us from government overreach. Other delegates thought it was unnecessary. Due to political maneuvers, the states ratified the Constitution without that list. However, the first US Congress presented 12 proposals to the states on September 25, 1789. Two of those proposals were defeated. The states ratified the remaining ten, which became our Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791.
Our Bill of Rights
That list protects these rights:
First Amendment- protects people with different or unpopular ideas by protecting our freedoms of speech, press, religion, peaceful assembly, and to petition the government.
Second Amendment - protects our rights to own guns and to maintain a militia.
Third Amendment - prohibits the government from forcibly housing soldiers in our homes.
Fourth Amendment - requires that the police must have a warrant issued by a court before they can search us, or our homes, or our property.
Fifth Amendment - lists our rights to proper procedure when arrested for a crime, prohibits self-incrimination and double jeopardy, and requires compensation for property seized through eminent domain.
Sixth Amendment - protects our right to trial by a jury and other rights when accused of crimes.
Seventh Amendment - protects our rights in civil trials and in appeals to higher courts.
Eighth Amendment - protects us from excessive bail and fines, and from cruel and unusual punishments.
Ninth Amendment - protects rights that are not specifically included in the Constitution.
Tenth Amendment - protects powers of the states and the people.
Six other important amendments protect our rights:
Thirteenth Amendment (1865) - abolished slavery.
Fourteenth Amendment (1868) – established the right of citizenship, extends the Bill of Rights to the states, and guarantees equal protection of the law to everyone.
Fifteenth Amendment (1870) - guarantees men’s right to vote regardless of race.
Nineteenth Amendment (1920) - guarantees women's right to vote.
Twenty-Fourth Amendment (1964) - abolished poll taxes and guarantees the right to vote even if you haven't paid your taxes.
Twenty-Sixth Amendment (1971) - guarantees the right to vote to citizens age 18 and older.
The Rights That We Don’t Have
Some laws give us certain rights in particular circumstances, such as consumer transactions. However, they are not protected by the Constitution and Congress can change them at any time.
We do not have rights to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”. That phrase is not in the Constitution.
It’s in the Declaration of Independence, and is not a law.
We do not have the right to be free from every type of discrimination. Federal law prohibits discrimination only for race, gender, religion, national origin, veteran status, age over 40, and disability. You can face discrimination for any other reason, including your hair color, sexual orientation, type of job, style of dress, or politics.
We do not have rights to a job, housing, food, health care, education, vacations, or entertainment.
We do not have the right to be free from any and all criticism. The Bill of Rights protects us only from the government.
Your employer, friends, neighbors, and strangers have every right to disagree with anything you do or say.
How to Protect Your Rights
So what can ordinary people do when the government violates these rights? The American Civil Liberties Union has defended our rights since 1920. With more than 500,000 members and supporters, the ACLU insists that the government respect civil rights and liberties, even in times of national emergency. After all, it's easy to honor public rights when times are comfortable. It's when times are difficult that it really matters.
What has the ACLU done for you? In 2008, after the ACLU intervened, the US Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to allow the families of deceased service members to place religious symbols on headstones in federal cemeteries. The group has vigorously defended Occupy protesters' first amendment rights to free speech, press, petition, and assembly. Since 2001, the ACLU has led the fight against government violations of the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, and fourteenth amendments through the "Patriot" and Military Commissions Acts.
Currently, the ACLU is working to protect our voting, reproductive freedom, internet privacy, and LGBT rights, among others.
You can help yourself. Learn about your rights. Be alert. If your rights are violated, contact the ACLU. You can help others. Contact your legislators and President Obama. Insist that they act to repeal unconstitutional laws and to protect our rights.
For more information:
Read the Bill of Rights
Read the U.S. Constitution
American Civil Liberties Union
Bill of Rights Institute
U.S. Government's Web Portal
How to Get Your Message to Your Legislators
Contact Elected Officials
Social Policy & Programs Consulting
Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice
Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting ~ Community Matters
P.O. Box 97803 ~ Pittsburgh, PA 15227 ~ 412-310-4886 ~ firstname.lastname@example.org
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