Ten Amendments Day

In March, the Maryland legislature held a hearing on the state’s proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. Jamin Raskin, professor of law at American University—a noted constitutional scholar—had been invited to testify. When he concluded his remarks, Republican Senator Nancy Jacobs said: "Mr. Raskin, my Bible says marriage is only between a man and a woman. What do you have to say about that?"

Raskin replied, "Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible." The room erupted into applause, and the exchange has since circulated widely on the internet.


I thought about that story when I saw that the Center for Inquiry is sponsoring Ten Amendments Day. There is a special website—www.tenamendments.org—devoted to the Bill of Rights, with special emphasis on the First Amendment liberties of speech and conscience. The local chapter plans a May 7th event at IUPUI, with a reading of the Ten Amendments, videos on Freedom of Religion and Freedom to Dissent, and a panel discussion.


The impetus for Ten Amendments Day was “Ten Commandments Day,” an effort by Christian Right groups to rally support for posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings. Such postings would require amending the First Amendment, since the Establishment Clause forbids government endorsement or promotion of religion.


Whatever the reason, Ten Amendments Day is a great idea. Too few Americans know much early American history; fewer still have ever read the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, or the Federalist Papers and the arguments for and against the addition of a Bill of Rights to America’s constitution. Without that background, it is impossible to appreciate how radically America’s constitutional system changed what was then thought to be the natural order of things.


Before the United States, the right of a government to exercise authority over its individual subjects was taken for granted—indeed, it was thought to be divinely ordained. America’s Founders asked audacious, previously unimaginable questions: what is the proper role of the state? What are the limits of its legitimate authority? Do individual citizens have rights that governments must respect? If so, what are those rights?


Democratic processes are important, but America was not originally conceived as a democracy as we currently understand that term. The emphasis was on individual liberty, and the creation of checks and balances intended to limit the reach of official power. As important as many other governing innovations were, and have been, the real genius of the “American experiment” was this recognition that government’s power over the individual conscience must be limited—that the important question was not “who is right and who is wrong” but “who gets to decide.”    


Raskin’s riposte went to the heart of that important truth: Americans consult a wide variety of holy and inspirational texts for moral guidance, but we all pledge to uphold the same Ten Amendments.