Did you know you can highlight text to take a note? x

Free Exercise of Religion

The Bill of Rights does not protect all forms of religious expression. For example, murder in the name of religion is still murder and is therefore illegal. Similarly, the government sometimes overrules parents whose religious beliefs conflict with certain medical practices by requiring the parents to have their children vaccinated. The government has gone back and forth over the extent to which it can restrain religious activities.

Example: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 required the government to accommodate religious behavior unless there is a compelling reason not to. The Supreme Court struck down parts of the act in 1997, claiming that Congress overstepped its authority. In fact, the Court has upheld the rights of some religious groups to use illegal substances, such as peyote, during religious ceremonies.

The Rights of the Accused

The Constitution gives many rights to people accused of crimes. The Founding Fathers sought to protect citizens of the United States from a government that would arrest and detain them without cause or trial, which is what Great Britain often did to American colonists before the Revolutionary War. According to the Constitution, a person accused of a crime has these rights:

  • Writ of habeas corpus, or the right to be presented to a judge and hear charges as to why he or she is being held; the government cannot hold people for no reason (Article I, Section 9)
  • Protection against searches and seizures without probable cause (Fourth Amendment)
  • Protection from self-incrimination (Fifth Amendment)
  • Quick arraignment and a speedy trial (Sixth Amendment)
  • Legal counsel (Sixth Amendment)
  • Not be tried more than once for the same crime (Sixth Amendment)
  • Trial by jury (Sixth Amendment)
  • Protection from cruel or unusual punishment (Eighth Amendment)

The Warren Court and the Rights of the Accused

Chief Justice Earl Warren, appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, led the Supreme Court through many landmark civil rights and civil liberties cases. Some of the rights that the Warren Court established have been scaled back, but most of the basic principles have remained:

  • The exclusionary rule: In Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the Court ruled that all evidence must be submitted to the judge before the jury sees it in all state and federal criminal trials. If the judge decides that the evidence has been obtained illegally, the prosecution will not be able to use the evidence during the trial.
  • The right to an attorney: In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Court ruled that the government must provide for an attorney to represent those defendants in all criminal cases who cannot afford an attorney on their own.
  • The right to a Miranda warning: In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Court ruled that police must inform the accused of his or her rights, including the right to remain silent during interrogation.

The Right to Privacy

Privacy is never explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, yet many Americans believe that they have an inherent right to privacy. In practice, Americans today believe their right to privacy includes access to birth control, the freedom to have abortions, freedom from persecution for some sexual behaviors, and the right to die as one chooses.

Birth Control and Abortion

In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Supreme Court ruled that states could not ban the use of contraception because such a ban violated the right to privacy. Justice William O. Douglass argued that several amendments implied a right to privacy, particularly the Ninth Amendment, which states explicitly that the list of rights in the Constitution is not exhaustive.

In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in the case Roe v. Wade that the government cannot ban abortion within the first trimester. The Court’s ruling is rooted in the woman’s right to privacy, which gives her the right to decide what to do with her body. Since Roe, the courts have limited abortion in a number of cases. In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), the Supreme Court ruled that states could ban the use of public funds for abortion. Three years later, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court ruled that states could require pre-abortion counseling, a waiting period of twenty-four hours, and parental permission for girls under eighteen years old.

Dying and Death

Many people now argue that the right to privacy extends to the right to choose one’s death. According to this view, people can choose to end their lives as they see fit. A decision in 1976 by the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a person could choose to refuse treatment for a terminal illness. Most courts have held, though, that people do not have a constitutional right to suicide, on their own or with a doctor’s assistance.

Popular pages: Civil Liberties and Civil Rights