These days, everyone seems to be clamoring about their “rights” — some of which are, quite frankly, made up.

Perhaps it would help if more people understood what rights are, where they come from, and how they must be balanced when they appear to conflict.

First of all, the view enshrined in our founding documents — the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution—is that rights are inherent, not conferred. They come from God, not government.

Rights bestowed upon us by government can just as easily be taken away. However, as the Declaration makes clear, our rights as human beings are inalienable, meaning they cannot be denied.

The entire Bill of Rights reinforces that principle. Instead of listing rights granted by government, it enumerates those the government may not “abridge.”

Second, one person’s actual rights do not infringe on anyone else’s. My right to speak freely neither forces you to listen nor prevents you from doing the same. My right to practice my religion according to the dictates of conscience in no way inhibits you from practicing yours — or not, if you prefer.

Conversely, one person’s “right” to free housing, education, or health care may very well infringe on someone else’s right to retain their own property or earn a living. Thus, those cannot be viewed as genuine rights, according to our fundamental understanding of the concept.

So actual rights should not conflict; but what happens when they do?

Then we as a society must make tough choices about which right takes precedence. A good place to start is with the Bill of Rights itself, considering not only the items enumerated but the order in which they appear.

Some insist that freedom of speech, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, is the most important right. Some would say the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, which protects all the others (and indeed is the only thing that can). Some argue for private property, implicit in the Third and Fourth Amendments.

I’m going to go with the very first right listed: Freedom of Religion. Because it’s not just about religion; it’s about conscience. The freedom to believe what we want and live our lives accordingly is ultimately what defines us as moral agents.

It’s also the only right government cannot take away. Given the will, it can take your property, it can take your guns, it can even silence you. (Ruby Ridge, anybody? Julian Assange?) But it cannot dictate what you think. Your conscience is yours and yours alone.

It can, however, try — and in doing so, descend into totalitarianism.

The math is simple: If supposedly you can believe what you want, but you can’t act based on what you believe, then you can’t really believe what you want. And a government that denies this most basic human right clearly presumes that the only rights we have are those they allow.

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Rob Jenkins is a college professor. The views expressed here are his own. You can email Rob at


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