What is the Bill of Rights?
After the leaders of the new United States wrote the Constitution, they had to get the thirteen states to agree to it. Some of the states didn’t want to agree unless they could add some specific rights for individual people.
So in 1791 the United States added ten new rights to the Constitution. They got the idea for some of these rights from the Magna Carta and the British Bill of Rights. Other ideas came from the Iroquois Confederacy.
We call this list of rights the Bill of Rights. It’s the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution.
These are the ten individual rights that are in the Bill of Rights, in simpler words:
- The United States Congress can’t make any law about your religion.They can’t stop you from practicing your religion. They can’t keep you from saying whatever you want. They can’t stop you from publishing whatever you want (like in a newspaper or a book). And Congress can’t stop you from meeting peacefully for a demonstration to ask the government to change something.
- Congress can’t stop people from having and carrying weapons, because we need to be able to defend ourselves.
- You don’t have to let soldiers live in your house, except if there is a war. Even then, you only have to if the United States Congress has passed a law about it.
- Nobody from the government can search your body, or your house, or your papers and things, unless they can prove to a judge that they have a good reason to think you have committed a crime.
- You can’t be tried for any serious crime without a Grand Jury meeting first to decide whether there’s enough evidence for a trial. And if the jury decides you are innocent, the government can’t try again with another jury. You don’t have to say anything at your trial. You can’t be killed, or put in jail, or fined, unless you were convicted of a crime by a jury. And the government can’t take your house or your farm or anything that is yours, unless the government pays for it.
- If you’re arrested, you have a right to have your trial pretty soon, and the government can’t keep you in jail without trying you. The trial has to be public, so everyone knows what is happening. The case has to be decided by a jury of ordinary people from your area. You have the right to know what you are accused of. You have the right to see and hear the people who are witnesses against you. The government has to help you find the witnesses on your side. And the government has to get a lawyer to help you.
- You also have the right to a jury when it is a civil case. (That’s a law case between two people rather than between you and the government).
- The government can’t make you pay more than is reasonable in bail or in fines. And the government can’t order you to have cruel or unusual punishments (like torture) even if you are convicted of a crime.
- Just because these rights are listed in the Constitution doesn’t mean that you don’t have other rights too.
- Anything that the Constitution doesn’t say that Congress can do should be left up to the states, or to the people.
Where did the ideas in the Bill of Rights come from?
The people who wrote these first ten amendments to the Constitution had reasons for writing them. It’s not always clear to us now what those reasons were. Here are some explanations:
Freedom of religion
Freedom of religion comes first because it was the most basic for the Constitution’s writers. Many of their grandfathers or grandmothers were Puritans or Quakers who had been jailed or killed in England for their religion. Their children left England for America in order to get away from religious persecution and be able to worship God however they wanted.
The history of freedom of religion
This wasn’t the first time people had tried to write laws about freedom of religion. The Iranian king of kings, Cyrus the Great, granted freedom of religion to the Persian Empire in 539 BC. The Roman Emperor Constantine granted freedom of religion to Christians in 313 AD, with the Edict of Milan. Henry IV in France granted freedom of religion to Protestants in 1598, with the Edict of Nantes.
The history of religious persecution
But other rulers had taken that freedom away. The Roman emperor Diocletian killed Christians about 300 AD. The Iranian ruler Khosrau killed many Mazdakites around 500 AD. Ferdinand and Isabella threw the Jews out of Spain and Portugal in the 1400s AD. China’s Emperor Wuzong killed thousands of Buddhists about 850 AD. Queen Mary killed many Protestants in England in the 1500s, and then Queen Elizabeth killed many Catholics. Louis XIV revoked (took back) the Edict of Nantes in 1685, because he wanted everyone in France to have the same religion.
The men who wrote the Bill of Rights wanted to make it very, very hard to change this law.
Freedom of speech and of the press
Like freedom of religion, freedom of speech has a long history.
Freedom of Assembly
How does the Bill of Rights work today?
Today, the United States Supreme Court interprets the Bill of Rights and tells us how we should understand it in specific cases. Sometimes those interpretations change, because our ideas about what is fair change over time, and new problems come up that nobody ever thought of before. Here are some examples of recent arguments over the Bill of Rights:
Freedom of religion: People have been arguing about whether schools can encourage children to pray in school. We have to balance the freedom of teachers and coaches – and of the students themselves – to talk about religion, with the freedom of other students, teachers, and coaches not to be forced into any religious activity they didn’t choose.
Freedom of speech: People have been arguing about whether people have a right to speak in public if their speech is hateful. What if they are saying that some people are not as good as other people? What if they are saying that some people should be enslaved, or that they should be killed? Does freedom of speech extend to them, too? And does it restrict their freedom of speech if public universities refuse to let them speak on campus, even if they could speak freely in other places?