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U.S. Constitution Topic of Sept. 16 Talk

By Jane Nicholson

BOONE – It’s only 6,000 words long and takes about 30 minutes to read, but when is the last time you read the U.S. Constitution from beginning to end?

” Most people have never read it, and they are always surprised when they find language that they never imagined was there,” said Bradley S. Chilton, chairman of Appalachian State University’s Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice.

Chilton will present a program on “The Constitution as a Document” Friday, Sept. 16, at 3 p.m. in the Belk Library and Information Commons lecture hall. His program will also address libraries and the Constitution, and the Patriot Act and 9-11. Refreshments will be served following his talk.

The presentation is part of national Constitution Day and Citizenship Day educational activities. The public is invited.

Chilton has taught in several states that require college students to pass a test on the Constitution before they can receive their bachelor’s degree. The subject is regularly taught in high school and college in North Carolina.

Still, he is amazed at mistakes people make regarding the document.

The most common relates to the First Amendment’s religion clause. “People say ‘there is a wall of separation between church and state.’ That phrase never existed in the First Amendment,” Chilton says. “The people who wrote the First Amendment made sure it wasn’t in there, but people don’t want to admit it’s not there.”

Chilton’s interest in the Constitution began as an undergraduate when he took a constitutional law course. It continued through law school and graduate school where he earned a doctorate specializing in law, politics and administration. He has written two books on the Constitution, and is writing a third about the ethical, moral and value assumptions implied by the Constitution.

While it is more than 200 years old, the document remains relevant today, serving as a model for other countries.

“There are lots of constitutions that have been written since ours,” Chilton said. “Most of them imitate ours in some part, including the Iraqi constitution.”

The most recent addition to the Constitution came in 1992 with the ratification of the 27th Amendment, an addition that came about because of a college student’s efforts, Chilton said.

The amendment prevents members of Congress from approving pay raises for themselves. It was one of 12 amendments considered for approval in 1791, but not was passed. Since the courts ruled that the amendment could be considered “still pending,” its ratification could still be considered.

“A student at the University of Texas – Austin in 1982 wrote a paper suggesting legislators could pass one of the amendments,” Chilton said. “He earned a C- for what his professor called a thoughtless paper.” Undeterred, the student wrote letters to all the state legislators. By his second year in law school, the amendment was passed.

“A college student, just by writing letters to 50 state legislators, was able to pass an amendment. That’s amazing,” Chilton said.

Even if you don’t read the entire Constitution and its 27 amendments, Chilton says there is one portion everyone should know.

“Everyone should know the preamble,” Chilton said. “It expresses the idea that the Constitution is a living document. It’s in the present tense every time it is read, and it makes it clear that the Constitution is ours. The preamble says it all.”