Supreme Court Ruling Highlights Confusion over 'Rights'

By Bruce Sullivan | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling on Monday that Congress exceeded its power when it granted women the right to sue attackers in federal court is a good example of the misunderstanding many Americans have about their guaranteed rights, several experts told

The controversy over our so-called "rights" also involves the claims made by homosexuals, certain groups of workers, animal activists and others.

In Monday's ruling, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that the interstate commerce clause in the Constitution, giving Congress the power to regulate trade between the 50 states, could not be interpreted to allow women to sue attackers and rapists in federal court. Congress had cited the harmful effects rape and domestic violence have on interstate commerce, when it passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.

The case involved a Virginia Tech student who claimed she was raped on campus by two football players. The players were later cleared by a criminal grand jury and a university judicial committee.

"Lots of people think that if anything is good, it must be in the Constitution," said former Solicitor General, Judge Robert Bork.

"I think that it's generally true that most Americans are woefully unversed in the details of the Bill of Rights," Center for Equal Opportunity President Linda Chavez told

Central to the case, the United States v. Morrison, was whether the Tenth Amendment, which is part of the Bill of Rights and deals with states' rights, could be overridden by Congressional laws.

"There is a big difference between liberty and rights," said American Civil Rights Union Chairman Robert B. Carleson, whose organization is dedicated to defending the rights of Americans included in the Bill of Rights (Constitutional Amendments 1-10), plus the 14th Amendment, a complex amendment ratified in 1868 that deals with issues ranging from due process of law to the emancipation of slaves.

"The Bill of Rights basically protects people from the government, or a government," Carleson told "The Bill of Rights is a constraint on government."

Carleson believes that by not fully understanding the Bill of Rights' role as a safeguard against an oppressive federal government, many crime victims mistakenly believe that their Constitutional rights have been violated.

"It's a constraint on government. It is not a constraint on individuals, and people don't understand that," said Carleson. "They think that if an individual does something illegal, that it's a violation of their Constitutional rights. That's not true."

The ACRU, said Carleson, stands in contrast to its liberal counterpart - the American Civil Liberties Union. "[The ACLU] has gotten to the point where they're defining 'liberty' as 'libertine,'" said Carleson.

A case in point, said Kerusso Ministries spokesman Michael Johnston, who works with ex-homosexuals, is the clamor for so-called "gay" rights. "Obviously the homosexual rights movement has been very effective in taking what heretofore in human history was a sexual perversion and turning it, somehow, into a human right," Johnston told

FDR's Four Freedoms

In his book, Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen, journalist James Bovard cites the January 6, 1941 "Four Freedoms" speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the beginning of a great shift in American society from a focus on rights and responsibilities - as outlined in the Constitution - to liberties and freedoms guaranteed by the federal government.

In his speech, Roosevelt promised citizens freedom of speech and religion, both guaranteed in the First Amendment, but then, says Bovard, "he got creative."

Roosevelt said, "The third [freedom] is freedom from want...everywhere in the world. The fourth freedom is freedom from fear...anywhere in the world."

Those promises were unrealistic and unconstitutional, said Bork.

"It's the 'want' and 'fear' that struck me as odd," Bork told "There's no way the government can guarantee that."

The words "rights" and "freedoms" have been gradually redefined since the Roosevelt speech, said Johnston. "Really what we've gotten to is that we've redefined 'rights' - the term 'rights' - into 'Whatever I want to do, I have the right to do.'"

The homosexual rights movement, says Johnston, represents the first time in American history that a particular behavior has been defined as a right. "The only other close exception would be the right to religious expression. But even that ultimately is not rooted in a behavior. It's rooted in a core belief."

'Rights' Activists Abound

Leading the fight for a diverse hodgepodge of 'rights' such as gay rights, environmental rights, animal rights, women's rights, workers rights, etc. are professional activists such as John Sellers, who directs the Ruckus Society in Berkeley, California.

The Ruckus Society was involved in the protests in Seattle, and later in Washington, DC, against the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, and, according to Sellers, is training non-violent demonstrators to protest at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in August.

"I'm a professional, strategic hell raiser," Sellers told

"We have a full blown training camp in LA, actually in Malibu, leading up to the DNC," said Sellers. "And then we have a three-day, kind of inner-city action prep that we're co-sponsoring with Act-Up Philly, and Kensington Welfare Rights Association."

Sellers said he considers himself non-political and is more concerned with "a moral kind of code" that he says "takes precedence over a lot of, you know, the legal and legislative morality that is often letting people down." He added that he was not very familiar with FDR's Four Freedoms speech, or the Bill of Rights, but he admired Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary War patriot whose pamphlet Common Sense helped launch that revolution.