In America, we make an issue about our rights.
Our Declaration of Independence states:
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.
We do not believe that our rights come from government.
We believe that our rights are something we have, just because we exist, and that the reason we form governments is to protect these rights and ensure we can exercise them.
As such, our First Amendment guarantees some of these rights.
Let this be very clear.
Our First Amendment does not “give” us these rights; they are ours because we exist.
Our First Amendment merely codifies them; it states them as something that we are instructing our government to guarantee and protect.
The First Amendment begins with this:
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…
Before we go over the rights, let’s consider the phrase “Congress shall make no law”.
Our Constitution divides our government into three branches: 1) a Legislative, “Congress”, that makes laws; 2) an Executive, headed by a President, that enforces or executes the laws; and 3) a Judiciary, headed by a Supreme Court, that interprets the laws.
The logic was simple: If Congress makes no law, then there is no law for the Executive to enforce or for the Judiciary to interpret.
Also, as this was written when America was young, most of the new states already had fundamental laws of their own, and these fundamental laws tended to guarantee the same things that our Bill of Rights was written to guarantee. Thus, the restriction was placed on the federal government, because it was generally accepted that the state governments already had restrictions on their conduct that were adequate in the eyes of their citizens.
So, let’s begin with this first right, “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.
We think that this, if properly understood and followed, is adequate to protect our religious rights, so we can practice our religion freely, or not practice a religion; and, not have government force a religion on us.
But, it is not.
Intricately entwined in this are our property rights.
Suppose, for example, you have this First Amendment as a fundamental law (as we in America do), but you have no right to own private property.
With no private property…where’s your church?
If you think the government will provide you a church, does that not mean “establishment of religion”?
Where’s your Bible?
Similarly, if you think the government will provide you a Bible, does that not mean “establishment of religion”?
If you are not allowed to own private property, then you have no place of worship and no holy book, and if the government endeavors to provide you with these things, then the government is in fact telling you what to believe and how to believe it.
Implicit in this freedom of religion is the right to private property: you must be able to have a church, mosque, synagogue, temple or other place of worship; this place must be owned privately, by yourself or a group of people, and not by the government; and, similarly, you must be able to have, possess and enjoy any documents that you find necessary to your belief.
Implicit in this is yet another First Amendment freedom, the right to peaceably assemble. Assembled, you do not have to petition the government for a redress of grievances; but you must be able to assemble a body of people. This right serves not only as a check on government, but as a fundamental part of enjoying your freedom. How can you worship in a community of believers if you cannot peaceably assemble? Or, for that matter, how can you enjoy a day at the beach with your family, or a picnic, or a baseball game, or a show in a theater, if you are not permitted to assemble peaceably in a group?
But, we have gotten away from our property rights.
Or, have we?
How can you enjoy a picnic if there is no private property where you can have it, and if the government decides it will not provide public property for that use?
But, back to our property rights: “or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….”
At the time this was written, free speech was not just written; people put their thoughts in writing, and distributed them on handbills – flyers that they could pass around. This allowed contact with people across time and space. Similarly, there was the “press” – newspapers produced on printing presses.
If, at the time, the government did not permit printing presses to be privately owned, would people have had this freedom?
Under such circumstances, would the government be required to print whatever a citizen asked? And, if so, who would pay for it? And, who would guarantee that the bureaucrat running the press didn’t set one order aside and prioritize another, based on personal preference, or based on instructions from a superior? Would you demand another bureaucrat to supervise the guy running the press? You would then need yet another one to supervise that one. And so on. And, all this costs more money.
Fast forward to today: free speech and a free press now basically require access to a computer, a printer, a photocopier, the internet… and if you demand the government provide these things for you, then you incur extra cost and uncertainty in your access, while if you allow the government to restrict private ownership of these things, then you allow government to restrict your exercise of your fundamental rights.
Here’s another look at this.
If you don’t have access to your computer, printer, photocopier… how can you produce and distribute material about your religious beliefs? If you don’t have freedom of speech, how can you discuss, debate and share your religious beliefs? How can you worship if you are not allowed preach or sing the praise of your Creator?
And, if you don’t have freedom of speech and of the press, does it really matter if you have a computer, printer and photocopier?
These rights are all intertwined; they are not mutually exclusive, but rather, they are mutually interdependent.
And the right to private property is fundamental to all of them.
The reality is that there are an infinite number of rights that are all intertwined. To begin to name a few, we immediately leave others out. So, we name the others, but find there are still more we have left out:
I have a right to sit in my car.
Wait a minute; I have a right to own a car!
I have a right to drink a soft drink.
Wait a minute; I have a right to have a soft drink, so I may drink it – or for some other purpose.
I have a right to drink my soft drink while I am sitting in my car.
I also have a right to sit in my car, and NOT drink the soft drink that I have.
There are an infinite number of rights that we have; the more we try to say what they are, the more we leave out.
So, we do not try to say what they all are.
Rather, we have the Ninth Amendment:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
We do not have to justify what right we have or why we want to enjoy it. We have it because our Creator gave it to us, and it is between us and our Creator whether and how we enjoy it.
And, most emphatically, to enjoy these rights, we also have a right to private property: we may accumulate possessions and enjoy them in a peaceful manner, as we see fit.
Government’s job, with our consent, is to secure these rights for ourselves and our posterity; nothing more.