Constitutional Law: What Does It Guarantee?

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  • James Notaris

    CPA, ESQ, Legal Editor

  • Tyler Dikun

    Executive Editor

    In Brief:

  • The first 10 Amendments of the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. These Amendments lay out the numerous freedoms that all Americans are bestowed.

  • Due Process means that Americans must be afforded all of their rights that are defined in the Constitution.

  • There have been numerous court cases over the course of American history that have aided in the interpretation of civil rights. 

The Constitution is the bedrock of all law in the United States. Since becoming effective in 1789, the Constitution has helped to lay the foundation for all legal frameworks in the country while also helping to safeguard liberty, justice, and rights for Americans. But what does constitutional law guarantee? Here’s a closer look at what rights are protected by constitutional law and how exactly the U.S. Constitution protects these rights.

What Rights are Protected by Constitutional Law?

The Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution that came into effect on December 15, 1791, is designed to protect the rights of Americans by limiting the powers of the Federal government, safeguarding individual liberty, and ensuring justice on all legal matters.

Specifically, these rights are:

 

  • Freedom of speech, religion, and the press, protected by the First Amendment
  • The right to bear arms, protected by the Second Amendment
  • Ban on the housing of soldiers in civilian homes, protected by the Third Amendment
  • Protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, protected by the Fourth Amendment
  • Protection of rights to life, liberty, and property, protected by the Fifth Amendment
  • Right to a fair trial, protected by the Sixth Amendment
  • Right to a trial by jury, protected by the Sixth Amendment
  • Protection from excessive bail, fines, and punishments, protected by the Seventh Amendment
  • Rights not listed in the Constitution belong to the people and not the government, protected by the Ninth Amendment
  • The Federal government only has the powers granted to it in the U.S. Constitution, protected by the Tenth Amendment

What Is Due Process?

Due process is defined as the legal requirement that a country must respect all of the legal rights that people are entitled to. It’s designed to balance out the power of the law and protect the rights of individual people from it. Essentially, it ensures fair treatment through a normal judicial system for everyone. 

It aims to ultimately limit the power of the law and legal proceedings so that judges and other legal professionals, as opposed to lawmakers, can define and guarantee rights and justice for individuals. 

The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution both contain a Due Process Clause to safeguard individuals from denial of their rights by the government. The Supreme Court of the United States interprets the clauses as providing four protections for individuals: procedural due process, substantive due process, the banning of vague laws, and as the main source of incorporation of the Bill of Rights. 

Procedural due process is used in civil and criminal legal cases and requires that government officials follow fair process during a legal trial, such as the right to present evidence and call witnesses, the right to know opposing evidence, and the opportunity to be represented by counsel.

Substantive due process is a principle that allows courts to protect certain fundamental rights from government interference, even if they’re not specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Vague laws, those which are too vague for the typical citizen to understand or can’t be strictly defined, are also prohibited by due process, which also serves as the main way that the Bill of Rights is made applicable to the states.

Does Constitutional Law Require Everyone Be Treated Equally?

The U.S. Constitution requires that all people be treated equally. This is derived from the Fourteenth Amendment, which says that no state should create or enforce any law that “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.” 

This principle ensures that the government treats people impartially and fairly and is derived from the Equal Protection Clause of the amendment, which took effect in 1868. The clause states that all citizens have a guaranteed right to equal protection under the law. 

The clause was the basis for the famous Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954, which played a key role in dismantling segregation laws across the country.

How Does the Constitution Protect Freedom of Speech and Religion?

The Constitution protects the freedom of speech and religion with the First Amendment. This amendment prevents the U.S. government from making laws regulating the practice of religion and free speech and also ensures the right to a free press, peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government for help without fear of punishment. 

Specifically, the text of the First Amendment reads: “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.”

The Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This states that the U.S. government is not allowed to establish a national religion, nor restrict the practice of specific religions in the country. The First Amendment also prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” and ensures that the right to free speech is guaranteed under constitutional law, though exceptions to this rule exist. Notably, these include inciting dangerous acts, false statement of facts, obscenity, child pornography, threatening the life of the U.S. president, and speech owned by others. 

A landmark Supreme Court case regarding the freedom of religion came in the 1963 Sherbert v. Verner case that stated that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment required that the government demonstrate a compelling interest and that the law in question be narrowly tailored before it ruled out unemployment compensation to an individual terminated from their job due to requirements that conflicted with their religious practices. The case specifically involved Adele Sherbert, who refused to work on Saturdays, as this was prohibited by her Seventh Day Adventist faith. 

The court’s decision ultimately reversed the decision of the lower courts, which initially ruled that her denied unemployment compensation was legal. The ruling led to the creation of the Sherbert Test, which laid the groundwork for courts to determine if the government had breached the constitutional rights of an individual in regards to their religious freedom. Eventually, the Sherbert Test was gradually curtailed throughout the 1980s, prompting Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. 

Likewise, although the First Amendment has helped to ensure freedom of speech in the United States for centuries, a number of notable court cases have tested the limits of this constitutional right. In the Debs v. United States case of 1919, the Supreme Court ruled that anti-war speech that aimed to obstruct recruiting was unconstitutional, though free speech rights were expanded in 1925 upon the ruling of the Gitlow v. New York case, which applied the protection of free speech to all states through the Due Process Clause of the constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.

The Vietnam War also proved to be a critical time for free speech rights in the United States, ruling in 1968 in United States v. O’Brien that burning draft cards to protest the war was not protected by the First Amendment as a form of symbolic speech, but also that students wearing black armbands to protest the war was indeed protected under the First Amendment in Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969.

The Power Of Freedom

The United States of America has thrived since its inception due to it’s guarantee of certain inalienable rights. Although it took many years for all men and women to have access to those same rights, the U.S. stands as a beacon of hope to people in unjust societies around the world. This radical experiment, forged in the Enlightenment Era, has proved to be the greatest form of government in the history of humankind.

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