Know your Constitution

Sunday marks the 230th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Sept. 17 is federally designated as Constitution Day, and this coming week is Constitution Week.

Most reasonable people, be they liberal or conservative, would agree the Constitution provides a basic guide to government and outlines the rights given to American citizens. It’s gotten harder to find anything else they agree on.

The Constitution and its Bill of Rights are bandied about with regular frequency, but studies say many of those who casually justify their behavior or views by citing these documents don’t really understand them.

Last year, a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, 39 percent of respondents incorrectly said the Constitution gives the president the power to declare war. More than half (54 percent) knew that the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war while a vast majority (83 percent) correctly said the Constitution gives Congress the power to raise taxes. A majority (77 percent) know the Constitution says Congress cannot establish an official religion — though almost 1 in 10 agreed with the statement that the Constitution says, “Congress can outlaw atheism because the United States is one country under God.”

The First Amendment prohibits the making of any law “infringing on the freedom of the press,” but 40 percent of those questioned favored the idea that Congress could forbid the news media from “reporting on any issue of national security without first getting government approval.” Just over half (55 percent) opposed such restraints.

Knowing specific dates in U.S. history isn’t essential to be a good citizen, but a citizenry that knows what’s in the Constitution, how the document was written and what the document actually means is important.

At first, our nation’s founders thought the Constitution itself was adequate as a basic document of government. But after it was adopted in 1787, then ratified by the states, it became clear that more limits were needed. In fact, representatives of the states insisted that the Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments to the Constitution — be adopted to curb the power of federal government and ensure the rights of citizens and states. Knowing that is important.

We encourage all Americans to use the opportunity afforded by Constitution Week to become more informed. We urge educators to make detailed lessons concerning the Constitution and Bill of Rights a priority. The rights and responsibilities of citizens and government are subjects on which no American student should be left behind.

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