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College celebrates Constitution Day

Tabitha Ricketts | Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Exactly 224 years after the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, three Saint Mary’s faculty members said controversy still surrounds the document’s interpretation.

The panelists participated in a discussion Monday titled “Constitutional Tensions: Negotiating Consensus and Controversy in the 21st Century” in Haggar Hall and focused on the right to bear arms, the role of religion in national politics and censorship.

Political Science Professor Patrick Pierce asked the panelists to place themselves in the mindset of the Constitution’s authors.

“[Supreme Court Justice John Roberts and the rest of the Supreme Court] consistently look at the intention of the framers,” Pierce said, “So let’s take a look at the intention of the framers.”

Pierce analyzed the document’s Second Amendment, which protects the right to bear arms.

After their experiences with Great Britain’s militant oppression, the framers of the Constitution feared the tyranny of a national army, Pierce said. They designed the amendment to defend against a national militia.

Pierce drew on several Supreme Court cases, including U.S. v. Miller in 1939, to show the judicial system’s interpretation of the amendment. These rulings upheld the founder’s initial intentions, he said.

“Your right to [bear arms] … has to be arms that could reasonably be employed again the national army,” Pierce said.

History Professor Bill Svelmoe focused on the role of religion in national politics.

“Is America a Christian nation?” Svelmoe asked the audience.

Americans often call the United States “God’s chosen country,” Svelmoe said, but the founders of the United States did not intend to create a Christian nation.

As they built the Constitution, these men all rejected the European tendency to tie church and state, Svelmoe said.

Unlike many other countries, Svelmoe said the United States did not mention God or religion in any part of the Constitution besides the First Amendment.

Despite this, religion is a still hot-button issue inside and outside the political arena today. Religious play has entered America’s political system during candidate debates at election time, Svelmoe said.

“If you pay attention at all during the next few years, you are going to hear a lot of talk about God,” he said.

Catherine Pellegrino, librarian at the Cushwa-Leighton Library, spoke about censorship and the First Amendment.

“[The First Amendment is] everyone’s favorite amendment … and everyone’s favorite clause,” Pellegrino said. “As soon as you start talking about free speech you immediately [jump to] the topic of censorship.”

Pellegrino cited several examples of censorship, ranging from a controversial book withheld from display in a library, to a threat against a newspaper by a local Congressional representative.

However, Pellegrino said none of these examples actually violated the Constitution.

“If you recall…the first amendment actually reads, ‘Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,'” Pellegrino said. “Notice how it says Congress. Not the newspaper, not a bookstore, not the library, not publishers; Congress,” she said.

However, Pellegrino said the Cushwa-Leighton Library established strict guidelines to prevent books from being removed purely on prejudicial bases.

Different interpretations of the Constitution and its amendments create controversy in libraries around the nation, she said.