Americans stand up for their civil rights, condemn or support governmental actions, and gather together to voice their opinions about the state of their union, state, county or community.
Citizens of the United States can do so freely because the country’s founders wrote a document that spells outs some do’s and don’ts about running the country and treating other people.
The U.S. Constitution was signed on Sept. 17, 1787, by members of the Philadelphia Convention. This week, schools across the country are celebrating “Constitution Week.” Some schools will work on related activities all week or all month; others will only celebrate on Thursday. There are also two online games that deal with constitutional issues.
State Rep. Linda Fischer, D-Bonne Terre, has been asked to speak about the Missouri Constitution and the U.S. Constitution Sept. 22 in Keith Huck’s eighth grade social studies classes at North County Middle School.
“I will be covering topics with students such as: The Missouri Constitution, the duties of a legislator, and the process of how a bill becomes a law,” Fischer said.
Fischer said her talk also will help students prepare to take their Missouri Constitution test.
A set of rules
Although the meaning of the language in its seven articles is often debated and it has been amended 23 times, the U.S. Constitution essentially has remained intact for more than 200 years.
The Constitution tells us how our leaders, lawmakers and judges are to be chosen, and defines the process we use to make new laws. It also establishes checks and balances among the three branches of the country’s government and its members so that no one branch — President, Congress or Supreme Court — will rule the other two.
The Constitution defines how states will be added, addresses treason and defines the rights of citizens with the Bill of Rights.
The U.S Supreme Court, the highest court in the judiciary branch of government, has the final say on whether a law violates any of those rights.
Amendments and case law
There are now 23 amendments to the Constitution that deal with the rights of citizens. Perhaps the amendment most often referred to is the First Amendment. That ensures our right to speak out against our government if we so choose, and to speak up for our rights. It does not, however, give us the right to say whatever we want, whenever we want, with no regard for others.
The First Amendment prevents the government from telling its citizens what religion they must practice. Challenges to the amendment have led to Supreme Court decisions that say your child’s teacher may not insist that your child share the same religious beliefs or say the same prayers as the teacher. However, students may pray in school if they so choose.
The First Amendment provides for a free press unlike in some countries where reporters must tell the news that the government wants it to tell, with information the government approves.
The Constitution allows U.S. citizens to bear arms and prevents soldiers from taking over peoples’ homes, as the British did to the American colonists. There are rules that address whether law enforcement can come into your home and take your possessions, and stipulations that aim to keep trials fair. The Eighth Amendment, for example, outlaws excessive bails or fines, and the Fifth Amendment provides for due process and prohibits someone from being tried more than once for the same charge if he or she was found not guilty.
Amendments ended slavery; took away, then restored a ban on alcohol; gave women the right to vote; and limited the number of terms the President may serve.
Based on the amendments, case law has defined issues such as the right to privacy, integration of schools and abortion.
Test your knowledge
While school children are learning about the Constitution, others can test what they remember about the document from their middle school days.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s has added two interactive animated games to the “Our Courts” Web site, http://www.ourcourts.org. The games, aimed at middle school students, are “Supreme Decision” and “Do I Have a Right?”
In “Supreme Decision,” a hypothetical female swing-vote justice asks the player to help her reach a decision in a First Amendment case, Ben v. Hamilton Middle School. The dispute involves a student barred from wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of his favorite band, called “Hall of Rejects.” After brief arguments on both sides, the swing justice asks the player for research to help her decide the case. Players listen to mini-debates between justices on each side of the issue, answer questions about their views, and then vote which side to support.
” Do I Have a Right?” puts players in the role of lawyers in a law firm. As new clients enter the firm with civil liberties complaints, players must decide whether the client’s rights were violated and which attorney’s skills make him or her the best for the case. Points are scored if the attorney wins the trial.
“Law and government are not about abstract rules or dry facts,” O’Conner said of the games. “They are about how people use the rules and facts to get things done. “Our Courts” first two games teach students how to apply the law through the eyes of a judge or a lawyer. They are fun and engaging for students, and easy to use in the classroom or at home.”
The Web site includes other law-related games, information about courts, and a civics lesson on the three branches of government, the Supreme Court, tribal governments, state governments and state-specific education resources.
Paula Barr is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 172 or at firstname.lastname@example.org