Welcome to the very first Constitution Tuesday, where we make civics cool. Okay, maybe not cool in a Cher-and-Dionne-from-Clueless sense, but more in a words-we-can-understand-breakdown-with-context kind of sense. Consider me the Tai of political education; a little rough around the edges but definitely means well.
If you’re anything like me, your civics education never amounted to more than the occasional Schoolhouse Rock tune. How can we expected to participate in our democracy when we don’t know the ins-and-outs of our own Constitution? The answer is: We can’t. Let’s start with the Bill of Rights, the most commonly referenced and invoked piece of our founding literature, to make sure we’re all on the same page.
Why is there a Bill of Rights? James Madison asked a similar question. It was the opinion of the Federalists that the Constitution itself was enough to cover individual rights. They intended for any rights or freedoms not explicitly given to the government in the Constitution be remanded to individuals. Federalists also believed that if a Bill of Rights was created and unintentionally missed something, it would do more harm to citizens than to have no clear outline at all. Anti-federalists expressed their concern that this was putting far too much faith in the system. They claimed that without expressly stating the rights and freedoms retained by the individual citizen, the government would use the lack of clarity to their advantage. Furthermore, they claimed that any government that was hesitant to make these clarifications was likely planning on deception. Eventually, with a remark from Thomas Jefferson to Madison that, “Half a loaf is better than no bread. If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can,” the Bill of Rights was created and it became explicitly unconstitutional for the Federal or State Government to infringe on any of the rights established within it.
The first amendment. “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; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
What a mouthful. Let’s break this thing down.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
Commonly known as Freedom of Religion, this amendment focuses on the necessity of the separation of church and state. Working backward, “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” refers to the private religious lives of American citizens. This amendment ensures that any citizen is free to practice any religious beliefs in their personal lives or to practice none at all without any interferences from the government. Basically, if you want to practice Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Paganism, a religion based on the texts of Dr. Seuss, or no religion at all, you are free to do so. The first part, about not establishing laws respecting religious establishment, was designed to keep citizens from being subjected to the doctrines of religions they don’t subscribe to. As such, the U.S. cannot establish an official religion, it cannot financially aid any religion, cannot participate in the affairs of religious organizations, or pass laws based on religious establishments. It is unconstitutional to force any citizen to follow a law based on a religion to which they do not subscribe. This is why gay marriage bans have been ruled unconstitutional; a ban on gay marriage requires all citizens to adhere to rules of a religion they don’t necessarily subscribe to. This is why it is unconstitutional to ban abortion; any such ban is signing religious doctrine into U.S. Law. Just as the U.S. Government cannot force those who practice Christianity to marry a same-sex partner or get an abortion, the U.S. Government cannot prohibit those who do not practice Christianity from doing exactly that. The tennants of religion and of government are fundamentally separate.
… Or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;
Let’s tackle definitions first: to abridge means to curtail, reduce, or diminish. This part of the first amendment is saying that the government cannot create a law that in any way impedes upon freedom of speech. So, are we and the press allowed to say anything we want? Close, but not quite. Exceptions are made when what we say puts anyone in clear and present danger (think falsely yelling “fire” in a movie theatre, it could cause injury) and if the press states something they know not to be true (considered slander). It’s important to note that while we are free to say most anything we want, freedom of speech also applies to anyone who disagrees with us. As such, we can rant and rave on the internet and anyone is free to rant and rave right back at us. For the press, freedom means that they do not answer to the government. The government may have no part in media outlets and cannot influence or control what the press says. Without this protection of the press, there is no way to ensure that citizens are receiving multiple sources and therefore able to come to unbiased conclusions. Freedom of speech was meant specifically to allow citizens and the press to criticize the government without fear of repercussion while also trusting citizens and the press not to abuse their freedom and incite danger or purposeful misinformation.
… Or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…
This one feels straightforward but it’s never a bad idea to clarify. Groups of citizens have the freedom to gather in public or in private for social, religious, recreational, or political reasons. We usually think of this line when referring to the right to protest, which is absolutely accurate but not the only meaning. The right to assembly means that groups of people have the right to demonstrate and have the right to form associations like labor unions, parties, justice groups, etc. Like much of this amendment, it is meant specifically in relation to keeping the government in check and ensuring they are working for the people. This piece also means that citizens are allowed access to the U.S. Courts.
… And to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Definitions: Petition means a formal request, redress means to remedy or set right, and grievances means something that is wrong or unfair. In simpler terms, this part of the amendment is saying that citizens have the right to formally request that the government remedies anything that is wrong or unfair.
That’s the bread and butter right there. As a generation referred to as snowflakes when we say something is unfair, our ally resides right there in the first amendment of the United States Constitution. We, as Americans, have the right to request that the government corrects where it has been wrong. Too long have we been scolded for protesting, gaslighted for speaking against injustice, and been called un-American for resisting but the reality is this: Holding the government accountable for injustice is the most American thing we can do. The administration depends on us being constitutionally illiterate and ignorant of our own rights. If we were truly knowledgeable of civics, every citizen would have the power of law on their side. You want to know what action to take? Learning is action.
Until next time, citizens. Mac, out.