Today I want to talk about the US Constitution and how it can be applied today. Seeing as September 17th is Constitution Day, it is as good a time as any. By way of introduction, you may recognize my last name, as my dad also writes for the paper on theological issues. I have taught Junior High and High school History. As a teacher, I have often encountered, “Why do I have to know this or when am I going to use it?” It is actually one of my favorite questions to answer. That is my goal in this article to answer the question “Why do I have to know the Constitution?”
On September 17th, 1787, the US Constitution was signed. While the writing of the Constitution was a collaborative effort, James Madison, who would later become the fifth President of the US, is seen as the primary author. The Convention was called as a way for the Federalists and Anti-Federalists (the two major factions at that time) to come to an agreement on how to improve the government many saw as a failure under the Articles of Confederacy. The Federalists argued for the Constitution’s adoption, while many Anti-federalists were worried it might not go far enough in restraining government power. It was to this end that the Bill of Rights were added. In many ways it was very novel, as much of these ideas had not been codified in this way, and stands along with the Magna Carta as one of the most revolutionary legal documents.
To address some practical issues we can see today, there has been a lot of talk about free speech recently. For instance, should hate speech be protected? Free speech is addressed in the First Amendment of the Constitution, along with freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly and to petition government for redress of grievances (this last one is often overlooked but is very important). These were the first of the Bill of rights added because the Anti-Federalists wanted to clarify what some of the freedoms were that hadn’t been directly addressed in the body of the Constitution. The First Amendment was essential as the founders saw the danger of restricting what people could say or do to only that which was allowed by the government.
In regards to free speech itself, there are several cases that may help us better understand the application. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist church in Snyder v. Phelps. They said to disallow flag burning is unconstitutional (Texas v. Johnson.) Note that opinions of the court are meant to be reflections of the Constitution and not laws in themselves. As a consequence of freedom of speech, there is no freedom not to be offended. This freedom however is generally not seen to extend to violence or threats of violence because although you have freedom to say offensive things, once something causes harm or damage, or a direct danger to public safety it has crossed the line into action. So freedom of speech is there to protect controversial speech, because uncontroversial speech needs no protection.
Having covered freedom of speech, as previously stated, the first Amendment also addresses a number of other freedoms. Freedom of religion is actually the first one mentioned. There are actually two clauses that deal with it. The first called the establishment clause is rendered thus: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion”. Basically, that Congress cannot make a law requiring a certain religion to be practiced. The next part is the free exercise clause, “Or prohibit the free exercise, thereof”. This means they cannot restrict what religion you choose to belong to along with the practices and doctrine that go with it. Again this has had some controversy recently. For example should a baker who opposes gay marriage on religious grounds be required to provide a cake for a gay couple’s wedding? If they should be required to bake the cake, would that then violate their free exercise rights? The courts have been fighting back and forth on this one.
It is important to look at what is written in the Constitution and look at what is going on today and ask, “Is this an issue that the government should be regulating? What does the Constitution say about it?” It is very important to stay vigilant and utilize the other freedoms as well, freedom of the press to talk about it and the freedom to petition government. There is a quote often dubiously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but nonetheless relevant, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” This article has covered the first Amendment and its applications; I hope to address other aspects of the Constitution in the future, as my intention is to make this a series of articles. Until next time, stay vigilant.