It’s the oldest national constitution that is still in use, and it’s just as relevant today as it was when penned in 1787. The U.S. Constitution was created to protect citizens by separating the powers of the U.S. government and defending the natural rights of those who call America home. Within its Bill of Rights and later amendments, protections range from the right to bear arms and term limits for the presidency, to the right to a fair trial and the abolition of slavery.
Constitution Day, also known as Citizenship Day, became an official holiday on Sept. 17, 2004. Today, in celebration of Constitution Day, The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and a number of partnering organizations, including the Greater Indianapolis NAACP, are taking to the streets of downtown Indianapolis to pass out pocket Constitutions.
“Last year, because of the rising interest in pocket Constitutions (due to Khizr Khan, who expressed his desire to share his pocket Constitution with Donald Trump during the Democratic National Convention), we decided to hand them out in person for Constitution Day. It’s our mission to hold our government accountable to the Constitution, and we want to encourage people’s interests by putting it in their hands,” said Jane Henegar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.
Byron Ratcliffe, the second vice president of the Greater Indianapolis NAACP, says his organization would not exist without protections afforded by the Constitution. That’s why he and his wife, Chrystal, who is president of the Greater Indianapolis NAACP, made sure to get the organization involved with handing out Constitutions during this event. Ratcliffe says he is especially interested in making sure young people are informed.
“It’s important for us to know what our constitutional rights are, because if you don’t know them, someone can take them from you. It’s especially important for our younger people, the millennials and below. I hope that by giving out the Constitution, awareness happens.”
Awareness may be desperately needed. When the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania surveyed 1,013 Americans to learn how much they knew about basic Constitutional provisions, the results were underwhelming — More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) could not name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, and only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) could name all three branches of government. In addition, more than half of Americans (53 percent) incorrectly thought immigrants who are here illegally do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution.
However, many Hoosiers are working hard to keep young people informed. Eleven Marion County legal professionals, including judges and attorneys, are visiting schools for Constitution Day to speak with students about their rights.
Judge Garland E. Graves of the Warren Township Small Claims Court says this is his second year participating in Constitution Day at local schools since taking office in 2011. With a firm understanding of the Constitution, Graves hope to inspire students to choose the legal profession as a career path.
“It is important now more than ever to expose young people to the Constitution and the rights that are granted to them, such as the freedom of speech, the right to assembly, the freedom of the press and others. By explaining the ways the Constitution protects their rights, it may give the young people a voice to speak up on issues that they are most concerned with,” said Graves.
In a time of increasing political tension, Henegar feels it’s more important than ever for people to be aware of their rights. She says even undocumented immigrants have certain protections under the Constitution.
“There is certainly debate among scholars about whether (President) Obama’s DACA executive order was an executive power overreach, but the actual policy is by no means unconstitutional. We would say it’s very constant with constitutional principles for all immigrants,” she said. “While citizens certainly enjoy full protection of every aspect of the Constitution, all immigrants, regardless of status, are protected by aspects of the Constitution. In particular, they have the protection of due process if the government wants to deport them.”
Ratcliffe says even though Americans have rights, they will not do any good if people do not practice them. He encourages citizens to stay informed, vote and protect those who need protection.
“One of the biggest rights and privileges is the right to vote, and this upcoming election will be extremely important,” said Ratcliffe. “We need to protect those in the middle and lower classes, but we can’t do that without peaceful demonstration, which is a constitutional right. We need strong people to go out there and know their right to protest and to gather peacefully, because that’s what going to change things.”
Indy celebrates Constitution Day