Which Rights Are Threatened by the Federal Government?
Religion & Liberty Online

Which Rights Are Threatened by the Federal Government?

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that a majority of Americans now believe the federal government threatens their own personal rights and freedoms:

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 9-13 among 1,502 adults, finds that 53% think that the federal government threatens their own personal rights and freedoms while 43% disagree.

In March 2010, opinions were divided over whether the government represented a threat to personal freedom; 47% said it did while 50% disagreed. In surveys between 1995 and 2003, majorities rejected the idea that the government threatened people’s rights and freedoms.

The growing view that the federal government threatens personal rights and freedoms has been led by conservative Republicans. Currently 76% of conservative Republicans say that the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms and 54% describe the government as a “major” threat. Three years ago, 62% of conservative Republicans said the government was a threat to their freedom; 47% said it was a major threat.

The fact that 38% of Democrats say the government poses a threat to personal rights and freedoms and 16% view it as a major threat, shows that it’s not just a partisan issue. But while there may be agreement that the federal government threatens our rights and freedoms, there is likely to be divergence of opinion on which rights and freedoms are being threatened. Rather than just having people respond with yes or no to the question, “Federal government threatens your personal freedom?”, it would be helpful for respondents to explain what they mean.

We could, for instance, have them go down the list of rights in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and point out which they feel are threatened. Like most Americans, I’m no legal scholar. But here is how I would respond:

Amendment:  First Amendment

Enumerated rights:  Free Exercise Clause; freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly; right to petition

Status check: Although religious liberties have been eroding for some time, the recent controversy over the HHS contraceptive mandate has brought a renewed interest to the very real threats posed by the federal government.  As Kyle Duncan, General Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, recently said,  “The administration obviously realizes that the HHS mandate puts constitutional rights at risk.” Indeed, they do—and they don’t care. The Obama administration believes in a watered-down “right to worship” rather than a robust freedom of religious.

Threat level: Serious threat


Amendment:   Second Amendment

Enumerated rights:  Right to keep and bear arms

Status check: No enumerated Constitutionally guaranteed right outrages and embarrasses liberal Americans more than the Second Amendment. Their goal of disarming the country and instituting a total ban on all firearms is frustratingly checked by thirteen words: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Fortunately, recent Supreme Court rulings have ruled that those words have meaning and so the threats to this right have been somewhat constrained.

Threat level: Real, but limited


Amendment:   Third Amendment

Enumerated rights:  Protection from quartering of troops.

Status check: Take heart, America: there is a least one enumerated right that the federal government is not likely to violate anytime soon.

Threat level: No threat


Amendment:   Fourth Amendment

Enumerated rights:  Protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

Status check: Considering that the biggest threat is the x-ray screening by the TSA at the airport, this right is still fairly secure.

Threat level: No serious threats


Amendment: Fifth amendment

Enumerated rights: due process, double jeopardy, self-incrimination, eminent domain.

Status check: In 2005, the Supreme Court ruling in Kelo vs. City of New London expanded the use of eminent domain to transfer land from one private owner to another private owner to further economic development. The Court held that the general benefits a community enjoyed from economic growth qualified private redevelopment plans as a permissible “public use” under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. So your private property is probably secure as long as some government-backed developer doesn’t want to replace your house with a strip mall.

Threat level: Continuous


Amendment: Sixth Amendment

Enumerated rights: Trial by jury and rights of the accused; Confrontation Clause, speedy trial, public trial, right to counsel

Status check: Your right to a have a counsel represent you in a public trial by a jury of your peers is secure—unless President Obama puts you on his “kill list.” If that happens then an “informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” can authorize a drone strike to wipe our you and your Sixth Amendment rights.

Threat level: Serious, but limited in scope


Amendment: Seventh Amendment

Enumerated rights: Civil trial by jury.

Status check: Like the Third Amendment, the right protected by the Seventh appears to be fairly secure.

Threat level: No general threats.


Amendment: Eighth Amendment

Enumerated rights: Prohibition of excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.

Status check: I haven’t had to post bail in awhile so I’m not sure what’s considered excessive.

Threat level: No threat?


Amendment: Ninth Amendment

Enumerated rights: Protection of rights not specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

Status check: The Ninth Amendment was added to the Bill of Rights to ensure that fundamental rights could not be denied simply because they were not specifically enumerated in the Constitution. How this affects individual right is open to interpretation.

Threat level: No threat?


Amendment: Tenth Amendment

Enumerated rights: Powers of States and people.

Status check: The Tenth Amendment states that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Since FDR’s New Deal legislation, the “commerce clause” has trumped the Tenth Amendment, allowing the federal government to take almost any powers it wants from the States and the people.

Threat level: Has been threatened so long that the amendment is all but meaningless.


Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).