1st federal Constitution Day approaches

Many schools, agencies unaware or unsure of national celebration

August 28, 2005|By Steven Bodzin and Mary Curtius | Steven Bodzin and Mary Curtius,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - For Louise Leigh, a retired medical technologist, Sept. 16 will be a dream come true.

It will be the first federally recognized Constitution Day, a national celebration of the U.S. government's founding document. It is just what she has sought since she founded the nonprofit organization Constitution Day Inc. in 1997.

But as the big day approaches, the schoolteachers and federal bureaucrats who will be required to spread constitutional knowledge are confused about what to do - if they've heard of Constitution Day at all.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, wrote the new holiday into the budget for the Education Department last December. He routinely carries a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution and has brought it out during speeches on the Senate floor.

The law creating a federal Constitution Day requires all schools receiving federal funds, as well as all federal agencies, to provide materials about the Constitution on Sept. 17, the document's "birthday." This year, because that day is a Saturday, events are planned for the day before.

One celebration will take place in Buena Park, Calif., at the Knott's Berry Farm replica of Independence Hall. The original Independence Hall in Philadelphia was the site of the Constitution's adoption on Sept. 17, 1787.

Leigh, a Los Angeles-area resident who is 91 and a longtime Republican activist, has organized Constitution Day events at the theme park since 1997. This year she is organizing a simultaneous recitation of the preamble to the Constitution at sites around the world, led by retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks.

Leigh began her activism as outreach director for the California Bicentennial Commission after her retirement.

"I spoke on university campuses and schools and service clubs - and realized how little people knew about the Constitution," she said. "I never stopped trying to perpetuate the Constitution."

And because of that longtime interest, she has been ahead of the game in preparing for the new day in the federal calendar. Schools, however, are mostly unsure about how to celebrate.

The legislation did not give the Education Department any enforcement power, so the law's stern-sounding language is not really a requirement, according to Byrd's office.

Complying will be particularly difficult at the University of California, where only two of the 11 campuses will be in session. The rest are on the quarter system, and classes will not resume until later in the month.

Classes at UCLA, for example, do not begin until Sept. 29. But for Constitution Day, said university spokesman Phil Hampton, the school "will prominently post a link on several Web sites, including its main Web site."

At UC Berkeley, where classes resume this week, Boalt Hall law school professor Goodwin Liu is assembling, at the request of university administrators, a panel of several scholars and a federal District Court judge to speak.

But like others who deeply appreciate the Constitution, he questioned whether a national requirement to celebrate the document was appropriate.

One hang-up for some big fans of the Constitution is their feeling that the federal government is mandating an educational curriculum - something that is not permitted by the Constitution.

"There's irony in using an unconstitutional measure to promote Constitution Day," said Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

Deborah Rigsby, director of federal legislation for the National School Boards Association, said the Constitution, while important, "is taught already. I can't say we opposed [the new law], but there may be some views that we already teach the Constitution as part of history, social studies, political science - and we don't need another federal mandate."

Federal agency preparations also appeared haphazard. The agency responsible for federal staffing, the Office of Personnel Management, has a Web page about the Constitution, reminding staffers that they take an oath to uphold and protect the document, "so help me God." (Some civil libertarians say that those words, adopted in 1884, themselves violate the First Amendment.)

Though spokesmen at several agencies had never heard of Constitution Day, Linda Formella at the Export-Import Bank said her agency planned to send all staff an e-mail reminding them of the oath and directing them to the Constitution Day Web site at the National Archives.

The Archives will celebrate next month by showing a film, produced by PBS, on the recent restoration of the original Constitution.

And the Cato Institute, which opposes the mandatory Constitution Day, is having a celebration of its own - its annual Constitution Day conference to dissect recent Supreme Court decisions.

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