Civics 101

It might be an odd time to bring it up, but there’s a lot of fighting and arguing about just what the Constitution says — and what it means.

Let’s start off with the basics: the United States Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Period. No laws can contradict it; it is the ruler against which all laws must be measured — and, occasionally, found wanting.

Second, the Constitution is intended for all Americans (and our guests in this nation). As such, it is written and intended to be instantly understood by everyone. In other words, we do not and should not need lawyers or other experts to tell us just what it says. It should be readily understandable by the average American, and no American should feel they need to have the Constitution explained to them.

Third, the Constitution consists of the original document and all 27 Amendments passed since. An Amendment is every much as part of the Constitution as the original document. They are treated separately for historical context and ease of reference, but they are an integral part of the entire document.

Fourth, the Constitution spells out precisely how it may be changed — and has been, on 17 separate occasions. (The first 10 Amendments, collectively called “The Bill Of Rights,” were passed along with the original document.) To refer to the Constitution as a “living document” that can “evolve” on its own outside of the Amendment process is a canard and a fraud, and most often cited by those who wish it said what it does not, and lack the energy or integrity to use the well-established Amendment process to make it so.

OK, there’s my Preamble. And it’s only about 5 times as long as the actual Constitution’s Preamble. Obviously, I lack the Founding Fathers’ gift for conciseness. Now down to a couple of particulars that have been annoying me of late.

First up, the whole wrangling about the current state of the federal debt, and spending, and all that. What could the Constitution possibly have to say about that?

Well, here’s Article I, Section 7:

All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.

That’s how the federal government handles money. The House starts the process, and the Senate can modify it, like any other — but it has to start with the House.

And since January 2007, the House has been controlled by the Democratic Party. Every spending bill (which includes how the money will be acquired to be spent, which triggers the above section) has to start there, and then move on to the Senate and finally the president.

It has evolved that, in the case of the federal budget, the president presents his plan to the House, which introduces it and modifies it as they see fit. Then they pass it on to the Senate, which makes its own changes. That means that the two Houses have to then reconcile these two plans into one they both can live with, and then pass it to the president.

Well, until recently. This year has been a bit different. President Obama didn’t bother submitting a budget at all, and the House never started the budget process. We’re well into the current fiscal year with no budget written down anywhere, and no one seems to actually care. That dereliction of duty alone ought to be grounds for kicking out every single Democrat in the House of Representatives.

But I digress.

Anyway, every single revenue bill passed since January 2007 has been crafted by a Democratic-dominated House of Representatives and approved by a Democratic-majority Senate. (A greater majority than the Republicans held at any point during the Bush administration, it should be noted.) Further, each since January 2009 has been signed into law by a Democratic president. Their names and fingerprints are all over them; they own them.

Secondly, there’s the infamous “First Amendment” and the whole “separation of church and state” thing. Let’s start off with the basics — the actual text of the Amendment in question:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

(emphasis added)

Two parts, equally important. Part one: there will be no “official” religion of the United States. The federal government is forbidden from expressing a preference for any religion of any sort.

Part two: conversely, the federal government may not offer its “disapproval” of any religion. This keeps the weasels who seem to take an inordinate interest in the halls of power from circumventing the first part by saying “we’re not promoting this one faith; we’re just restricting all the others.”

The theory of the “separation of church and state” has no official standing in the Constitution; it’s something that’s developed through practice and application — and, as such, is constantly open to interpretation and debate. The actual text is clear; Congress can’t do these things. But how best to implement it?

What has developed in many ways, and which meets with my “common sense” tests, is that for most matters the State doesn’t get involved in religious matters — which includes allowing exceptions to the law in the name of people’s “free exercise” of their religions. For example, the tax-exempt status of most religions.

This comes with a price, though — the “hands-off” policy has to run both ways. Churches had to stay out of partisan politics, or they would forfeit their protected status. I don’t believe this has ever been applied, but on several occasions the threat has been raised.

So, technically, there is no Constitutional “separation of church and state” — the phrase is used as a shorthand way of discussing how to best implement the relevant portions of the First Amendment.

It’s always entertaining to hear the loudest pushers of the “separation” line denounce the ignorance and stupidity of those who point out that the phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in the Constitution proper. The underlying attitude seems to be “are you gonna believe us, the educated elite, or your own lying eyes?”

The Constitution is not that challenging a document. It was written for the layman of the time, and doesn’t require lengthy study and education to understand the fundamentals.

In the old days, that was just known as “good citizenship.”

Sarah Palin: "Those are corrupt bastards."
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