Our civil liberties are individual freedoms that place limitations on the power of government. Most of these rights are spelled out in the text of the Constitution or in its first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, but some have developed over the years through judicial decision making.
Sometimes rights conflict, and when they do, government, guided by the Constitution and through the institutions of Congress, the executive, and the actions of citizens themselves, is called upon to resolve these conflicts.
For much our history the limitations on government outlined in the Bill of Rights applied only to Congress, meaning that while the federal government could not infringe on civil rights, state and local governments could. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment began the process of nationalizing, or incorporating, the protections of the Bill of Rights at the State level, although not all of the Amendments have been incorporated yet.
According to the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, citizens of the United States have the right not to be coerced to practice a religion in which they do not believe, as well as the right not to be prevented from practicing the religion they espouse. Because these rights can conflict, religious freedom has been a battleground ever since the founding of the country. The courts have played a significant role in navigating the stormy waters of religious expression since the founding.
Freedom of expression, also provided for in the First Amendment, is often considered the hallmark of our democratic government. Freedom of expression produces information about government, limits corruption, protects minorities, and helps maintain a vigorous defense of the truth. But this right may at times conflict with the preservation of social order and protection of civility, decency, and reputation. Again, it has been left to the courts to balance freedom of expression with social and moral order.
The right to bear arms, supported by the Second Amendment, has also been hotly debated—more so in recent years than in the past, as federal gun control legislation has been enacted only recently. Most often the debate over gun laws is carried out in state legislatures.
The founders believed that to limit government power, people needed to retain rights against government throughout the process of being accused, tried, and punished for criminal activities. Thus they devoted some of the text of the Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights to a variety of procedural protections, including the right to a speedy and public trial, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to legal advice.
Though the right to privacy is not mentioned in either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights—and did not even enter the American legal system until the late 1800s—it has become a fiercely debated right on a number of different levels, including reproductive rights, gay rights, and the right to die. In the absence of constitutional protection, the series of court cases on these matters determines how they are to be resolved. Many of these issues are still on shaky ground, as the states create their own legislation and the courts hand down new rulings.
Our political system is concerned with protecting individual rights, which grant freedoms and allow us to make claims on our government. But citizens are also expected to act within certain restrictions—laws and limits designed to protect the collective good. The balance between the freedom to do as we wish with the obligations to do as we should is a continuing challenge.