Rule of Law

On Day Devoted to Constitution, a Fight Over It


The New York Times
On Day Devoted to Constitution, a Fight Over It
By Kate Zernike
September 16, 2011


In the 100 years since Constitution Day was first established, most Americans have lumped it with holidays like Grandparents’ Day and Administrative Assistants’ day — a noble cause, lightly observed.

But this year, with the Tea Party making the Constitution sexy again, the holiday (which, for those rusty on their civics, falls on Saturday) has become occasion for battle.

Tea Party groups, armed with lesson plans and coloring books, are pushing schools to use the day to teach a conservative interpretation of the Constitution, where the federal government is a creeping and unwelcome presence in the lives of freedom-loving Americans.

Progressive groups, accusing the Tea Party of selectively reading the founding document, have responded with a campaign to “take back the Constitution.” They are urging Americans and lawmakers to sign a pledge to honor the whole Constitution, even the parts many Tea Party supporters would prefer to ignore — say, the amendments allowing an income tax, and granting birthright citizenship. And they are trying to get people to see the Constitution not as a limit on federal power but as the spirit behind progressive laws.

The struggle over the holiday is yet another proxy in the fight over the proper role of government. On one side are those who embrace an “originalist” view of the Constitution, where New Deal judicial activism started the country down the path to ruin. On the other are those who say that its language — allowing Congress to levy taxes to provide “for the general welfare,” to regulate commerce, and to do what is “necessary and proper” to carry out its role — affirms the broad role of the federal government that has developed over the last 100 years.

“It has evolved to the point where it seems many in the Tea Party believe the entire 20th century is unconstitutional,” said Doug Kendall, the president of the Constitutional Accountability Center and a leader of the progressive coalition behind the effort to, in his words, “rebut the fairy tales being peddled by the Tea Party.”

This may seem like a fight reserved to costumed Revolutionary War re-enactors — or Ron Paul supporters, who will commemorate the holiday, as they have the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, with a fund-raising event. But the question of who owns the Constitution has very current implications in the fights over Social Security and Medicare, and most immediately, in the court challenges to the health care overhaul that Democrats passed and Tea Party supporters loathe.

In one respect, the Tea Party has already won. When groups on the left talk about the Constitution, they are increasingly emphasizing the original text — as the originalists do — rather than the Supreme Court decisions that have upheld programs like Social Security.

Tea Party Patriots, a large umbrella for groups across the country, began encouraging its members this year to “adopt a school” for the Constitution Week, next week. It provided local groups with templates for a series of letters to school superintendents, to inform them about a law passed in 2004 that requires schools that receive federal money to teach about the Constitution on Sept. 17, or the adjacent days.

(The letters did not mention that the law was the work of Senator Robert C. Byrd, who was famous as a champion of the Constitution, but also of the kind of big government liberalism that the Tea Party believes the Constitution is intended to constrain.)

Tea Party groups were instructed to ask schools how they planned to observe the law, and to suggest that they use a curriculum provided by the National Center for Constitutional Studies.

The center, based in Arizona, offers books and courses now popular among Tea Party groups — including “The 5000 Year Leap,” made a bestseller by Glenn Beck’s recommendation. They emphasize the 10th Amendment in arguing for states’ rights, and argue that the income tax was a progressive perversion of the Constitution and that the founding fathers did not intend the separation of church and state. (The course materials also show how to memorize the preamble to the Constitution using sign language.)

Tea Party Patriots also distributed a new coloring book that argues that the government has “grown far beyond what the Constitution allows,” and casts modern-day Tea Party groups in the role of the original colonists, fighting for freedom against an overbearing government.

“A lot of what happens in Washington is not the process we agreed to in that Constitution,” said Bill Norton, who coordinated the adopt-a-school program for Tea Party Patriots.

But he said the program was not political. “We go right back to the founders when it comes to the Constitution,” he said. “The material we’re bringing in is very historical, there’s no agenda in either direction.”

Mr. Kendall’s group marked the holiday with a new Web site,, which attempts to rebut Tea Party arguments about the Constitution.

While the Tea Party talks about the 10th Amendment and states’ rights, and argues against the role of the Federal Reserve, the Web site argues the ways in which the Constitution gives the federal government the authority to do things like set up a central bank, and to regulate health care.

The Web site also tries to get progressives as excited about the Constitution as conservatives are — arguing it as the basis for progressive goals, including the right to same-sex marriage.

Constitution Day is hardly sweeping the nation — Tea Party Patriots could not quantify how many schools it had persuaded to participate. Still, if both sides want Americans to be talking more about the Constitution, they are succeeding. Many schools were passing out pocket-size Constitutions, in addition to the Tea Party Patriots coloring books.

In Orange County, Calif., high school students planned to watch a reenactment of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark case concerning the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee to a fair trial, including right to counsel. And in Nevada City, Calif., middle schools planned to show the now classic “Schoolhouse Rock” segment about the Constitution, with the preamble, sung folky, as its refrain.