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Law tells schools to honor Constitution Day



Published: Sat, August 27, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Constitution does not permit the federal government to mandate an educational curriculum.

LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- For Louise Leigh, a retired medical technologist, Sept. 16 will be a dream come true.

It will be the first federally recognized Constitution Day, a national celebration of the U.S. government's founding document. It is just what she has sought since she founded a nonprofit organization, Constitution Day Inc., in 1997.

But as the big day approaches, the schoolteachers and federal bureaucrats who will be required to spread constitutional knowledge are confused about what to do -- if they've heard of Constitution Day at all.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., wrote the new holiday into the budget for the Education Department last December. He routinely carries a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution and has brought it out during speeches on the Senate floor.

What's in law

The law creating a federal Constitution Day requires all schools receiving federal funds, as well as all federal agencies, to provide materials about the Constitution on Sept. 17, the document's "birthday." This year, because that day is a Saturday, events are planned for the day before.

One celebration will take place in Buena Park, Calif., at the Knott's Berry Farm replica of Independence Hall. The original Independence Hall in Philadelphia was the site of the Constitution's adoption Sept. 17, 1787.

Since 1997, Leigh, a Los Angeles-area resident who is 91 and a longtime Republican activist, has organized Constitution Day events at the theme park.

This year she is organizing a simultaneous recitation of the preamble to the Constitution at sites around the world, led by retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks.

Leigh began her activism as outreach director for the California Bicentennial Commission after retiring as a medical technologist.

What's behind this

"I spoke on university campuses and schools and service clubs -- and realized how little people knew about the Constitution," she said. "I never stopped trying to perpetuate the Constitution."

And because of that longtime interest, she has been ahead of the game in preparing for the new day in the federal calendar. Schools everywhere, however, are mostly unsure about how to celebrate.

The legislation did not give the Education Department any enforcement power, so the law's stern-sounding language is not really a requirement, according to Byrd's office.

One hang-up for some big fans of the Constitution is their feeling that the federal government is mandating an educational curriculum -- something that is not permitted by the Constitution.

"There's irony in using an unconstitutional measure to promote Constitution Day," said Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

Federal agency preparations also appeared haphazard. The agency responsible for federal staffing, the Office of Personnel Management, has a Web page about the Constitution, reminding staffers that they take an oath to uphold and protect the document, "so help me God." (Some civil libertarians say that those words, adopted in 1884, themselves violate the First Amendment.)




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