Dr. Karl Leib Reflects On Constitution Day Discussion

Constitution Day arose from a 2005 law which requires colleges receiving federal aid to commemorate the anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution. CBU has honored the Constitution each year since with public seminars and guest speakers, which provides our campus community an opportunity to get reacquainted with our nation’s founding document. This year, I led a roundtable discussion entitled, “Why We Need a Constitution.”

Given the embittered political environment of the present day, we can easily ask if the Constitution matters at all. Do politicians and the public still care about, let alone understand, the intricacies of a document written sporadically by many hands over two centuries? Can we reach a consensus on the Constitution, its meaning, and what if any changes should be made to it?

The students and faculty who took part in Constitution Day this year explored many of these questions. It was an amicable but lively conversation. Given the debates in September over military action against Syria, it was perhaps inevitable the issue of war powers should arise. The Constitution divides that function, ambiguously, between Congress and the president. While Article I grants Congress the sole the power to declare war, this power has not been exercised since the Second World War. Article II in turn designates the president as “commander in chief” of the armed forces. How far does the president’s power to command military forces go before requiring Congressional action?  When does the president require a formal congressional declaration of war, or at least an “authorization to use military force”? Not surprisingly, presidents of both parties have read (and used) their powers broadly, often more broadly than their congressional critics.

Another topic at this year’s Constitution Day was the perennial issue of religion and politics. What exactly does the Constitution say about religion? Very little, though the mere 36 words devoted to the subject carry volumes of meaning. The Constitution forbids religious “tests” as requirements to hold public office (Article VI), bars the “establishment” of religion (Amendment I), and forbids restrictions on the “free exercise of religion” (also Amendment I). It is fair to say that those provisions leave considerable room for debate. How far does religious freedom extend? Surely not to acts deemed illegal in other contexts; human sacrifice is still murder. But how much “separation” between the institutions of government and the institutions of religion(s) is required by the Constitution? How neutral must the government be?

I mentioned that our conversation was lively, but we did not achieve full agreement, nor did I expect that we would. Definitive answers on these questions are elusive, as the sheer number of Supreme Court cases suggest. The framers of Constitution may have left us a Constitution perpetually “under construction.” It is perhaps more important that we continue to wrestle with these questions. This is the best way to fully appreciate the critical importance of the Constitution for our country. On to Constitution Day 2014!