By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Define civil liberties and civil rights
Defining Civil Liberties and Civil Rights
To be more precise in their language, political scientists and legal experts make a distinction between civil liberties and civil rights, even though the Constitution has been interpreted to protect both. We typically envision civil liberties as being limitations on government power, intended to protect freedoms that governments may not legally intrude on. For example, the Texas Constitution’s Article 1 Section 6 denies the government the power to prohibit “the freedom of worship” of religion; the states and the national government cannot forbid people to follow a religion of their choice, even if politicians and judges think the religion is misguided, blasphemous, or otherwise inappropriate. You are free to create your own religion and recruit followers to it (subject to the U.S. Supreme Court deeming it a religion), even if both society and government disapprove of its tenets. That said, the way you practice your religion may be regulated if it impinges on the rights of others. Similarly, the Texas Constitution’s Article 1 Section 13 states the government cannot impose “cruel and unusual punishments” on individuals for their criminal acts. Although the definitions of cruel and unusual have expanded over the years, as we will see later in this chapter, the courts have generally and consistently interpreted this provision as making it unconstitutional for government officials to torture suspects.
Civil rights, on the other hand, are guarantees that government officials will treat people equally and that decisions will be made on the basis of merit rather than race, gender, or other personal characteristics. Because of the Constitution’s civil rights guarantee, it is unlawful for a school or university run by a state government to treat students differently based on their race, ethnicity, age, sex, or national origin. In the 1960s and 1970s, many states had separate schools where only students of a certain race or gender were able to study. However, the courts decided that these policies violated the civil rights of students who could not be admitted because of those rules.
Civil rights are, at the most fundamental level, guarantees by the government that it will treat people equally, particularly people belonging to groups that have historically been denied the same rights and opportunities as others. The proclamation that “all men are created equal” appears in the Declaration of Independence, the due process clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and the Texas Constitution’s Article 1 Section 3a requires that the federal government treat people equally. According to Chief Justice Earl Warren in the Supreme Court case of Bolling v. Sharpe (1954), “discrimination may be so unjustifiable as to be violative of due process.”
We can contrast civil rights with civil liberties, which are limitations on government power designed to protect our fundamental freedoms. For example, the Texas Constitution’s Article 1 Section 13 the application of “cruel and unusual punishments” to those convicted of crimes, a limitation on government power. As another example, the guarantee of equal protection means the laws and the Constitution must be applied on an equal basis, limiting the government’s ability to discriminate or treat some people differently, unless the unequal treatment is based on a valid reason, such as age. A law that imprisons Asian Americans twice as long as Latinos for the same offense, or a law that says people with disabilities don’t have the right to contact members of Congress while other people do, would treat some people differently from others for no valid reason and might well be unconstitutional. According to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause, “all persons similarly circumstanced shall be treated alike.”
- Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430 (1968); Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737 (1984). ↵
- Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954). ↵
- Phyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982); F. S. Royster Guano v. Virginia, 253 U.S. 412 (1920). ↵