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Civil liberties are not granted by government but are guarantees against government taking them away.  

The terms civil liberties and civil rights are often used synonymously or interchangeably. Both words are used in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. But they are different. 

Civil liberties are identified in the Bill of the Rights, here called rights. They are similar to what is referred to as human rights or natural rights, those that adhere to human beings as gifts of God or designations of nature. 

They are inviolable or in the words of the Declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”

Civil liberties “are freedoms guaranteed to us by the Constitution to protect us from tyranny (think: our freedom of speech), while civil rights are the legal rights that protect individuals from discrimination (think: employment discrimination).” Civil liberties “concern the actual basic freedoms; civil rights concern the treatment of an individual regarding certain rights.”

Civil liberties are protections against government action. Civil liberties restrain governments; they list what governments cannot do. The United States federal, state, or local governments did not give us our civil liberties. They are gifts of God, ours by birthright.

Civil liberties include life, liberty, the freedom of religion, freedom of speech (expanded to expression), freedom of the press, freedom of assembly or to petition the government for redress of grievances, the 14th Amendment’s due process, the 6th Amendment’s right to a fair trial, equal treatment under the law, right to own property. 

Civil rights are actions governments may institute to extend additional protections to citizens. Civil rights list what governments must do and have been expanded over time through “positive actions” of government, for example the 13th Amendment ending slavery in 1865, the 15th Amendment granting male citizens the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the 19thAmendment of the US Constitution in 1920 giving women the right to vote, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, attempts a comprehensive list.

Civil rights include the right to vote, right to public education, or right to use public facilities. More recently, a right to privacy and the legalization of same-sex marriage have been added to American rights.

Consequently, citizens’ civil liberties may never lawfully be abridged without due process of law, while citizens’ civil rights may change over time according to new legislation enacted into law as interpreted by the courts.

In liberal democracies, civil liberties or natural rights predate and are a priori to governments. It is enormously important to recognize and remember this, particularly in this time period when a number of “big government” philosophies are ascendent and people frequently call for government to alter basic liberties according to their proclivities. And it’s also a time in the 2020 pandemic panic in which state governments via overreaching governors have issued “orders” upon orders telling citizens what to do and in a number of cases limiting their civil liberties.

The U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights may not be perfect, but I challenge anyone to cite civil documents creating a governmental system that is more protective and more supportive of individual liberty. This is a precious heritage.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2020    

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