What Is the Difference Between Civil Rights and Civil Liberties?

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Civil rights are protective measures enacted by the government to ensure that all citizens are treated equally, while civil liberties limit a government's infringement upon the rights of its citizens, explains the Independence Hall Association. The Bill of Rights outlines civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, but civil rights are often defined by social movements and dilemmas. In particular, civil rights are often aimed at protecting minority groups from being discriminated against.

Civil liberties are intended to guarantee specific rights the government cannot lawfully deny, such as the freedom to participate in any religion, according to the Independence Hall Association. However, federal powers defined in the Constitution create gray areas that allow the government to propose new laws, potentially threatening civil liberties. One example is government interest in tracking suspects by GPS without warrants and using spy drones to patrol and collect intel on U.S. soil, notes PBS. Both measures are criticized as possible violations of search-and-seizure laws that protect citizens from unjustified police intrusion.

Civil rights issues typically arise when the government creates laws to balance majority and minority interests, according to the Independence Hall Association. For instance, the 14th Amendment was added to prevent state legislatures from disenfranchising racial minority groups or denying them access to a fair legal process. Other civil-rights legislature protects women from gender discrimination. Yet, civil rights can mirror or contradict civil liberties, often requiring a court to weigh the perceived freedoms of one party against another.