The U.S. Constitution is an amazing document in so many ways, not the least of which is its timeless nature. It has endured 200-plus years of societal and political changes though, like the fabled elephant to the blind men, it appears as different things to all who interpret it.
Even to those who seem to embrace it most, it’s never quite enough. There are examples in the news last week involving efforts to add exclamation points, underlines, bold-faced type and everything but emojis to a document that doesn’t need such amplification.
To wit: The movement in Georgia to defend “religious freedom” through passage of new laws. Freedom of worship is fully protected by the First Amendment, yet Georgia lawmakers seem to feel an additional layer of legal protection is necessary. There are more than a handful of these bills before the General Assembly, so it’s apparently a high priority topic for some.
Opponents of these bills believe the push is aimed at exempting business owners or employees from taking part in same-sex marriage ceremonies against their personal objections. They fear legalized discrimination that would undermine a right the Supreme Court has upheld. The state Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders share that concern and fear boycotts from companies, organizations or individuals who view the state as unfriendly to the gay, lesbian and transgender community.
A similar bill now in the state House would let church officials pass on performing same-sex ceremonies if they so choose. While a law aimed at businesses opens a worthy debate over free market choices, the “Pastor Protection Act” seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Would same-sex couples not seek friendly clergy rather than “force” someone to perform their nuptials? The bill’s foes raise concerns it could include denying faith-based social services largely funded by the state.
The bill’s sponsors, including Dawsonville Republican Rep. Kevin Tanner, say it would keep pastors from being sued if they refused to perform such services. OK, fair enough, provided someone would actually pay a lawyer and file a lawsuit to make a such point, even if finding someone else to perform a wedding requires much less effort. Then again, we’re in the social media era of shared outrage when victims are ever in search of villains, so maybe we’re naive to think it unneeded.
Even then, we question if such laws are needed when the Constitution already provides adequate protection to practice one’s beliefs. When faith intersects with the rights of others, the courts will get involved one way or another. Extra laws piled on top of the Bill of Rights won’t change that, nor add freedoms that aren’t already protected.
But passing state laws here and there are mere tweaks when compared to an effort to amend the Constitution itself. Last week, lawmakers in Tennessee joined those in Georgia, Alabama, Alaska and Florida calling for a constitutional convention aimed at drawing up amendments to limit federal power and congressional terms of office, a move one lawmaker called “an atomic bomb of politics.”
As bombs go, it’s a dud, purely an empty gesture. Why? Because it would take 34 states, a two-thirds majority, to launch such a gathering. Any amendments agreed upon would need to be approved by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, then two-thirds of state legislatures. The chances of that happening are slim and none in a red-blue nation evenly split over the role of government.
But even if it were doable, why seek to limit federal power by amending a document already designed to do exactly that? Such redundancy is like adding extra candles to a birthday cake. The Constitution already notes the express powers of each branch of government, in no uncertain terms. The 9th and 10th amendments revert any powers not addressed therein into the hands of the states and the people.
Now granted, that notion of state and individual liberty is not followed diligently by all governments and courts, and never has been. Constitutional arguments have been waged since the ink first dried on it in 1789, and will as long as it remains law. Our leaders are as conflicted over it as the proverbial blind men interpreting the part of the elephant their hands are on. But doubling down with extra amendments won’t bridge that divide. And new laws always are subject to the same judicial scrutiny, bringing us back where we started.
The solution is to select leaders who support the Constitution as written, not take a highlighter to it. And that responsibility remains up to voters — who, by the way, can enforce their own term limits with each election by deciding who to send into office and for how long.
Amending the Constitution is a Hail Mary pass thrown by those too impatient to move the ball forward in more conventional ways. Grandstand plays are for show, not results. We don’t need an “atomic bomb,” just smart leaders who follow the law of the land. Sure, half of the country will disagree with the other half, but that’s how it is. Persuasion and compromise are the only tools to fix that.
For two centuries, the Constitution has served as a model for representative democracy around the world. It can be changed when needed, but that isn’t often, just 27 times since first written (10 of those the Bill of Rights). Our founders wisely made it hard to mess with it, knowing how easily political moods can swing.
We should be thankful the blueprint of our laws doesn’t blow in the breeze with every storm. It remains a steady beacon to lead us, if we would trust it to do so.
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