Constitutions and cultural divides

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 6, 2012

By David Post
Constitutions should soar: “We the people . . . ” Constitutions should be aspirational: “in order to form a more perfect Union.”
Constitutions should seek broad principles: “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility,”
Constitutions should protect that which it creates: “provide for the common defence.”
Constitutions should be inclusive: “promote the general Welfare.”
Constitutions should dream: “Secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
A people united in purpose create a constitution to define the structure and function of its government that is entrusted to act in the common good.
Though the United States Constitution, adopted in 1787, is the shortest in the world, it is the most elegant, the most enduring, the most emulated, and the most respected. A mere seven “Articles,” the first three define the function and duties of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. The next four are brief, defining the relationship between the federal and state governments, the amendment process, the supremacy of federal government over state governments, and the ratification process.
In 1791, 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights were adopted providing individual freedoms and protections. Since then, more than 10,000 amendments have been introduced in Congress. In addition to the Bill of Rights, only 17 have been adopted.
Some constitutions legislate very specific laws. India, Alabama, and California have long constitutions, each running hundreds of pages, almost the size of two normal novels. Not surprisingly, they are often described as unmanageable.
Not all constitutions intend to promote the common good. Those nations defined by religious law inevitably and fervently believe that their religions and laws are “right” and are morally superior. History teaches that religious nations tend to live in a state of constant war with other religions nations even though their citizens usually have a common ancestry going back millennia.
Parliamentary governments, as in many European nations, have constitutions that empower the people to elect their legislature and the head of the party winning the most seats in the legislature then selects the nation’s executive leader, usually a prime minister.
Other constitutions, such as Russia’s, centralize power in their presidents.
The role of courts vary. While some governments grant control over the courts to the legislature or the executive, United States courts share authority equally with the legislature and the president. (Recently, several presidential candidates argued that the U.S. Supreme Court was the weakest branch of government because it was placed in Article 3 of the Constitution, after legislative and executive powers, something akin to suggesting that a parent’s last child is the least favorite.)
Constitutions should seek lofty ambitions, protect the minority from the majority, speak language of individual protection that allow legislatures and courts to take care of the details. Like the United States Constitution, North Carolina’s does that. In fact, the N.C. Constitution opens with the Declaration of Rights, more than three dozen liberties protecting the civil and criminal rights of all people. Section 19 declares that “no person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws; nor shall any person be subjected to discrimination by the State because of race, color, religion, or national origin.”
The Marriage Amendment ballot initiative will be North Carolina’s first constitutional effort to restrict human and individual rights by imposing a moral, religious doctrine on all its citizens.
It brings to mind the Broadway play, “South Pacific,” which is about cultures clashing during World War II. When a son asks his mother why different people hate each other, she sings a sad, lyrical song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” explaining to him that a child must be taught to hate and fear and to be afraid of those different than he.
North Carolina is blessed to be in a country that prides itself on protecting the rights of all. Its citizens have sacrificed their lives in wars — right or wrong — on the lands of different cultures on the ideal that all peoples deserve the right of self-determination.
Yet, here we are, for the first time, voting to restrict the personal liberties and the most sacred choice a person makes — who to love.
Regardless of the different religious beliefs across this state and the outcome, this vote represents a sad day. Instead of accepting the differences of its diverse citizenry, North Carolina is erecting an invisible border, purposely excluding some of its own from enjoying the “pursuit of happiness” that Article 1 of its Constitution promises.
• • •
David Post lives in Salisbury. He believes that the study of constitutional law is the ultimate exercise in human philosophy.