Constitutional Corner – A Brief History of Virginia’s State Constitution

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If you want an introduction to the philosophy of government as understood by America’s Founders, don’t read the U.S. Constitution, instead read a Declaration of Rights from one of the original thirteen states, especially those of Virginia, Pennsylvania or Maryland.  Instead of first laying out a plan of government, as the U.S. Constitution does and as the state constitutions eventually do, these state Declarations of Rights explain “why” we have government and what its true goals should be.  Reading these will be time well spent.

As dismal is the typical American’s knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, greater still is their ignorance of their state’s constitution.  Yet, at one point in our country’s history the state constitutions were all that governed Americans.  For five years, from 1776 to 1781, the Articles of Confederation remained unratified; Maryland refused to complete the unanimous consent required to put them into effect. Finally, France threatened to pull out of a treaty and Maryland finally relented.  Even in 1781, however, the thought of a truly national constitution was still a misty dream in the minds of a select few men.

From its founding in 1607 up to 1776, Virginia was governed by a series of proprietary and then royal charters.  In 1619, Virginia’s House of Burgesses was established, creating the first representative government in the colonies and “the oldest continuous law-making body in the New World.”[1]  The House of Burgesses would operate over the next 157 years, governing the people of Virginia until the call for independence went out.

Virginia’s Declaration of Rights was also the first in our nation’s history. Both New Hampshire and South Carolina adopted Constitutions before Virginia, in early 1776, but those documents were published, at least initially, without Declarations of Rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted June 12, 1776, and the new Constitution followed on June 29. This original declaration of rights, with a few additions, still forms Article 1 of Virginia’s Constitution today.

In begins with these words:

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Isn’t that a beautiful paragraph? Don’t you wish the U.S. Constitution began with something similar? So did James Madison.

Madison tried unsuccessfully to add something similar to this wonderful proclamation to the preamble of the U.S. Constitution as he drafted what would become the new Bill of Rights.  Unfortunately, this introduction was left on the cutting room floor. Madison knew the paragraph well; he had been appointed to represent Orange County at the convention in Williamsburg and had worked on George Mason’s drafting committee, where he made a major contribution to religious liberty by insisting on a change to one of the later articles (that we’ll discuss in a moment). The only quibble I have with this paragraph is Mason’s choice of the word “inherent.” “Inherent” can be construed to mean “part of the human condition,” and this meaning avoids assigning these rights to a transcendent source, i.e. God. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson framed these “inherent” rights much better, as an inalienable endowment of our “Creator.” Jefferson’s construction comports better with the thoughts of Locke, Blackstone and others.

Speaking of Jefferson, had he been given the choice, he would have opted to remain in Williamsburg writing Virginia’s Constitution rather than represent his state at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. But I believe history confirms that the Virginia Assembly made the right choice in sending him northward. As proof that his heart was still in Williamsburg, after arriving in Philadelphia, Jefferson sent his ideas for the new state constitution down to Williamsburg. Unfortunately, they arrived too late to be incorporated. But part of what he sent was used; if you read Virginia’s original preamble to their Declaration of Rights it is clear that what Jefferson sent them included a copy of at least the “complaints” section of his draft Declaration of Independence. Virginia’s version closely follows Jefferson’s draft. At that time in our history, plagiarism was considered a sincere form of flattery.

Another of my favorite passages in Virginia’s Declaration, one I’ve written about on numerous occasions, is Section 15:

“That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

America is a nation with amnesia. We have forgotten our rich history of self-government and individual freedom. We are being pushed and prodded instead towards collectivism and socialism. Do you want America to survive as a free republic? easy; have everyone frequently review our nation’s “fundamental principles.” I’ve written about these principles in numerous essays; they can be found in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, even in the Articles of Confederation and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. By an act of Congress, these four documents form our country’s “Organic Law,” so it behooves us to know what they say, what principles they contain, and how these principles should inform our actions as a self-governing people.

A final passage from the Declaration of Rights that I should discuss is Article 16:

“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.”

This passage interests me for several reasons.  First, my favorite Founder, James Madison played an important role in “tweaking” the wording of this section to provide for greater religious freedom in the state.  Mason’s original draft called for “toleration” of religious views; Madison argued that did not go far enough and his wording was adopted instead. Second, as you see, according to our Constitution, Virginians of all faiths have a “mutual duty” to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other. Kind of neat, huh?

When they ratified the U.S. Constitution in June of 1788, Virginia sent Congress a copy of their Declaration of Rights and suggested it help form a new Bill of Rights for the Constitution. In March of 1789, newly elected James Madison, representing Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, took his seat in the Congress.  He found Virginia’s suggestions for a Bill of Rights waiting his arrival, along with those of several other states.

Of the approximately twenty-six separate rights secured in the ten Amendments that eventually made up the U.S. Bill of Rights, Virginia’s 1776 declaration covered seventeen of them. Notably absent from Virginia’s declaration were:

  • Any prohibition of an established state religion. What became the First Amendment only prevented Congress from declaring a national religion, state religions were OK and most states had one. The Church of England was the established church in Virginia. It would eventually be disestablished and the prohibition against an established state church would be added to the Virginia’s Declaration of Rights in 1830 and expanded in 1971.
  • Any protection of free speech. This would not be added to the Virginia’s Constitution until 1971, as would freedom of assembly, and the right to keep and bear arms.
  • Virginians from 1776-1791 (when the Bill of Rights went into effect) had no right of due process and no right of the assistance of counsel. These would also be added later.
  • The only glaring deficiency of the present Virginia Constitution when compared with the U.S. Bill of Rights is that there is, to this day, no assurance of a grand jury indictment when charged with a capital crime. Virginians are of course assured of such an indictment today by virtue of the U.S. Bill of Rights and the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.

Standing opposite these omissions, Virginia’s Declaration of Rights includes several statements which indicate Mason’s drafters were a cautious lot who understood the danger of a too-powerful government; they added statements nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution or its Bill of Rights.  They include:

  • That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people (it’s nice to be reminded of this).
  • That magistrates should at all times be amenable to the people (i.e., willing to accept suggestions).
  • That government is instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community (how easily this is forgotten today).
  • That a majority of the community has a right to reform, alter or abolish their government (and they have from time to time).
  • That no individual or group is entitled to exclusive or separate benefits or privileges from the community (a later amendment was added to Virginia’s Declaration which would seem to do precisely that. See the 2010 amendment discussed below).
  • That citizens should evidence a permanent common interest in, and attachment to, their community before being allowed to vote (although no legislation was ever passed to put this into action).
  • That citizens are not bound by any law to which they have not assented through their representatives or which is not for the public good.
  • That citizens have duties as well as rights.
  • That there should be an effective system of public education (I wonder if today’s system qualifies as “effective?”)
  • That no government separate from, or independent of, the government of Virginia, ought to be erected within the state. (Review the creation of West Virginia)
  • That the state has no power to suspend the execution of laws without the people’s consent.

As you can see, there many protections found in Virginia’s Constitution that are missing from the U.S. Bill of Rights.

In 1783, Jefferson sent his friend “Jemmy” a draft of a new state constitution in which he proposed “fixes” for the weaknesses he saw in the 1776 version.  One of those weaknesses lay in limiting the right to vote to property owners, which essentially meant only men of wealth could vote.

This limitation proved a perpetual irritant, as did discordant representation of the western counties, whose thinner populations left them under-represented and thus dominated by the Tidewater region. A constitutional convention was finally called in 1829–1830[2] to fix these two problems. Seventy-eight year old James Madison was invited to attend, as were “giants of the revolution” James Monroe and John Marshall.  Madison urged wider suffrage, but his voice was so weak he could hardly be heard. The new constitution expanded suffrage somewhat but retained the property requirement; it left the representation problem unresolved. Note: The 1829 Constitution was the first to be ratified by a popular vote; 1776’s had been adopted without putting it to a vote of the citizens.

Another new Constitution in 1851[3] finally eliminated the property requirement for voting, resulting in extending the vote to all white males of a certain age. The 1851 Constitution also established popular election for the Governor, the newly created office of Lieutenant Governor, and all Virginia judges.

After seceding from the union in April 1861[4] and ratifying the Constitution of the Confederate States of America in June, Virginia’s Confederate government proposed changes to the state constitution, such as changing “United States” to “Confederate States.” The citizens rejected them.

During the war, citizens upset at Virginia’s secession from the Union formed the “Restored Government of Virginia,”[5] situated in Fredericksburg, and in 1864 they drafted and “passed” a new state Constitution. Due to doubts over its legality, it is not considered valid and is not listed in Virginia’s constitutional history.

After the war, while under military rule, another new constitution was drafted in 1867/68. Opponents called the result the “Underwood Constitution” or the “Negro Constitution”, since it gave freed slaves the vote (the Fifteenth Amendment would not be ratified until 1870). The new constitution expanded suffrage to all male citizens over the age of 21, it established a state public school system, and provided for judges to be elected by the General Assembly rather than by popular vote. The Governor was granted full veto power and a constitutional amendment and revision procedure was established.

By the turn of the 20th century, despite the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, many Southern states had essentially eliminated their black vote through use of poll tests. Pressure mounted among whites in Virginia to do the same. The 1901 constitutional convention[6] met in this climate. Delegates focused on how to restrict black voting rights without violating the Fifteenth Amendment or disfranchising poor whites in the process. The convention created the requirement for poll taxes and a literacy test — an exemption was granted for military veterans (of either Union or Confederate Armies) and their sons.

The prospective voter, before he or she could even register, had to prove “able to read any section of this Constitution submitted to him by the officers of registration and to give a reasonable explanation of the same…” I wonder how many of Virginia voters could do this today? (Note: any persons who had fought a duel or accepted the challenge of a duel were prohibited from voting.) This change effectively disfranchised many black voters, though many illiterate whites were similarly affected. In the years which followed, Virginia’s electorate was reduced by half.

Other significant provisions of the 1901 Constitution were the creation of racial segregation in public schools and abolishment of the county court system. Due to concern over African-American opposition, the proposed constitution was not put to a popular vote and the Virginia Supreme Court upheld this action in 1903.

In 1926, a commission was appointed to recommend further changes to Virginia’s Constitution and the proposed changes were submitted to a vote of the people in 1928. New limits in how the legislature could incur debt for capital improvements and a prohibition on taxing real estate or tangible personal property were approved. The State Treasurer, the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Commissioner of Agriculture were now to be appointed by the Governor.

A limited Convention was held in 1945 for the sole purpose of ensuring that members of the armed services would not be prevented, by registration and poll-tax requirements, from voting in state elections in 1945.

In response to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs Board of Education decision (which ruled segregated schools unconstitutional), another limited convention was held in 1956 to amend Section 141 and allow for the expenditure of public funds for the education of students at private, non-sectarian schools (i.e. all-white schools).  This was part of a massive resistance[7] Virginia put up to the Brown decision.

In 1968, the Virginia General Assembly established a commission to revise the constitution once again. The Commission on Constitutional Revision presented its recommendations to the Governor and the General Assembly the following year. The proposed Constitution was overwhelmingly approved by the voters and took effect on July 1, 1971. This remains Virginia’s Constitution today.[8] As I’ve noted, several changes were made to the Declaration of Rights.  Since then, the constitution has been amended at least twelve times.

  • An amendment in 1972 reduced the voting age to eighteen (the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to eighteen in national elections, had been ratified the previous year).
  • In 1976, an amendment modified the state’s residency requirements. 1980 and 1994 amendments set procedures for reconvening the General Assembly.
  • A 1994 amendment brought the constitution in compliance with the new national Motor Voter Act.
  • A 1996 amendment established rights for victims of crime.
  • A 2000 amendment established that all the state’s residents had a right to hunt, fish and harvest game.
  • In 2002, amendments were approved which concerned claims of actual innocence presented by convicted felons and allowed local governing bodies to grant tax exemptions for property used for charitable and certain other purposes.
  • A 2004 amendment established decennial redistricting and added a list of persons who may serve as Acting Governor.
  • In 2006, an amendment was approved by 60% of the voters prohibiting same-sex marriage (ostensibly nullified by Obergefell v Hodges).
  • A 2010 amendment provided property tax relief for certain persons with income and/or financial worth limitations and certain veterans. This almost certainly violated the earlier constitutional provision that “That no individual or group is entitled to exclusive or separate benefits or privileges from the community.” Another amendment set a maximum amount for the Revenue Stabilization Fund.
  • Reacting to the Supreme Court’s Kelo v City of New London decision, a 2012 amendment prohibited the taking or damaging of private property for public purposes.
  • In 2014, the people approved an amendment to exempt surviving spouses of soldiers killed in action from paying property tax.
  • Finally, in 2016, a similar property tax exemption for spouses of certain emergency services providers was approved.

We can see from Virginia’s constitutional history that a constitution can at times be used as a weapon.  Democrats controlled the Virginia legislature from at least the mid-1800s until 2000,[9] an amazing 150-year stretch (except for a short period of military rule during re-construction).  During the Jim Crow era, they used the state constitution to, first, suppress the black vote, and then to extend de-facto segregation by facilitating segregated schools.

In their 1981 book “The Constitutional Convention as an Amending Device,” editors Kermit Hall, Harold Hyman and Leon Sigal identify a great disparity in American constitutionalism, namely, Americans show great interest in “tweaking” their state constitutions, sometimes by amendment, sometimes by complete replacement. Conversely, they seem to reluctant to replace or even amend the U.S. Constitution. “Between 1776 and 1976 some 226 state constitutional conventions were convened, 136 constitutions ratified, and more than 5,000 amendments adopted.”[10] Virginia itself has had five Constitutions since 1776.  Yet the U.S. Constitution, never replaced, has been amended only 27 times since its ratification in 1788 (18 times if you count the first ten amendments as a block) and the last amendment was 25 years ago.  Why the disparity?

Perhaps we revere our national constitution too much (or our state constitutions too little).  Given that the U.S. Constitution is today a shell of its former self in terms of limiting the national government, creating a government that today “can do most anything in this country,” perhaps it is time we reassess our reluctance to consider long overdue amendments that will help put the national government “back in its box.”  Perhaps we should take a lesson from our state experiences and once again make the U.S. Constitution serve the people who provide its political power. Just saying.

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[10] The Constitutional Convention as an Amending Device, Kermit Hall, Harold Hyman & Leon Sigal, ed., American Historical Association, 1981, p.69.

Constitution Corner – The Right of Conscience

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“… there is great reason to fear that a positive declaration of some of the most essential rights could not be obtained in the requisite latitude. I am sure that the rights of conscience in particular, if submitted to public definition would be narrowed much more than they are likely ever to be by an assumed power.”[1]

Despite Madison’s initial reluctance to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, he finally succumbed to the arguments of Jefferson, Mason, Henry and others, and then fought vigorously for its addition.  Nevertheless, as he warned Jefferson, if the rights to be secured are not described “in the requisite latitude” they will likely not receive the protection they deserve.

So how do you describe the right of conscience?

You start by understanding what conscience is and why it is part of the human condition.

Every person is born with a conscience; it has been called “a gift of God to mankind.”  This gift manifests itself as the “still, small voice” in our spirit that speaks as we contemplate a particular action:  “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.”[2]  We may not hear a verbal “word” behind us, but we know the guidance is there; that guidance, based on the laws of God, is “written upon our hearts.”

Notice that conscience guides actions as well as thoughts; we are to “walk it its light.”  Thoughts or beliefs are a first step, but insufficient; they are impotent if they cannot also be acted upon.

In 1778, Theophilus Parsons warned: “We have duties, for the discharge of which we are accountable to our Creator and benefactor, which no human power can cancel. What those duties are, is determinable by right reason, which may be, and is called, a well informed conscience. What this conscience dictates as our duty, is so; and that power which assumes a control over it, is an usurper….”[3]  “Duty” implies action.

Based on the suggestion of New Hampshire as they ratified the Constitution, and his own inclinations, Madison tried to explicitly secure such a right.

He had observed, first-hand, the ill-treatment afforded Baptist ministers in nearby Culpepper County, Virginia.  Arrested for preaching without the required license from the state (which they were unable to obtain since the Church of England was the established state church), they were thrown in the “goal” and treated harshly; one account has a jailer urinating into their cell through the bars.  Hearing of this and apparently visiting and speaking with them, Madison pleaded in a letter to his college friend William Bradford: “…[P]ity me and pray for Liberty and Conscience to revive among us.”

It was the ministers’ freedom to act upon their beliefs of conscience that had Madison most concerned.  The beliefs themselves were, “in the main … very orthodox.”[4]

Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments on June 20th, 1785 reminds us that:

“[t]he Religion … of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate… It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no mans (sic) right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.[5] (emphasis added)

New Hampshire suggested: “Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or to infringe the rights of conscience.”  Madison added his own thoughts and came up with: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”  The Senate removed the conscience reference altogether and left us with what we have today.

So to what “objects” does the right of conscience extend?  Here’s where Madison’s warning about “requisite latitude” comes into focus.  Conscience clearly begins with religious thought and action.  Any fair study of the right of conscience during the founding period must conclude that freedom of religion was the driving force behind this right.  From the Pilgrims to the Puritans, to the formation of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Maryland, religious liberty and the freedom to act on Christian conscience has been central to the American experience.

Accommodations have indeed been made to allow people (and even corporations) to align their actions with their specific religious beliefs:

For-profit companies as well as religious organizations are not forced to cover contraceptives in their healthcare plans. [6]

A woman can voluntarily quit her job over a requirement to work on the Sabbath without losing her right to unemployment benefits.[7]

A Jehovah’s Witness cannot be denied unemployment benefits after quitting his job at a weapons plant over objection to manufacturing weapons of war.[8]

The Amish cannot be forced to send their children to compulsory public school.[9]

But does right of conscience extend only to religious tenets and beliefs?

No!  In two cases,[10] the Supreme Court decided that “conscientious objection” beliefs did not have to be religiously based to be valid and deserving of respect and accommodation; they could be based on personal codes of morality.

Pharmacists in Illinois have been granted the freedom to not dispense abortificants (the “Plan B Pill”) if doing so conflicted with their objections to abortion.[11]

So a person cannot be forced to serve in the military when he or she believes war to be morally wrong, but apparently a florist can be forced to sell flowers which will be used to celebrate a homosexual wedding,[12] a baker forced similarly to bake a cake for such a wedding,[13] and a photographer forced to photograph it.[14]  If they refuse to provide these services because they believe homosexual marriage to be morally wrong or Biblically condemned, they will be sued, fined, forced out of business and almost certainly sent to “diversity training”[15] to align their “aberrant” beliefs with public policy.

America, what a country!

It should go without saying that a Jewish or Muslim butcher will never be compelled in this country to sell pork, a black carpenter compelled to build crosses for the KKK, or a lesbian print shop owner compelled to print posters for the Westboro Baptist Church.

It should be clear by now that Christian business owners and only they are being systematically targeted, with one intent: to drive them out of business if they refuse to support the LGBT agenda.  They will be forced to celebrate homosexual marriage along with everyone else, or find a different line of work!

So what is God’s view of homosexuality and homosexual “marriage?”

“While the Bible does address homosexuality, it does not explicitly mention gay marriage/same-sex marriage. It is clear, however, that the Bible condemns homosexuality as an immoral and unnatural sin. Leviticus 18:22 identifies homosexual sex as an abomination, a detestable sin. Romans 1:26-27 declares homosexual desires and actions to be shameful, unnatural, lustful, and indecent. First Corinthians 6:9 states that homosexuals are unrighteous and will not inherit the kingdom of God. Since both homosexual desires and actions are condemned in the Bible, it is clear that homosexuals “marrying” is not God’s will, and would be, in fact, sinful.

Whenever the Bible mentions marriage, it is between a male and a female. The first mention of marriage, Genesis 2:24, describes it as a man leaving his parents and being united to his wife. In passages that contain instructions regarding marriage, such as 1 Corinthians 7:2-16 and Ephesians 5:23-33, the Bible clearly identifies marriage as being between a man and a woman. Biblically speaking, marriage is the lifetime union of a man and a woman, primarily for the purpose of building a family and providing a stable environment for that family.”[16]

James Madison called conscience “the most sacred of all property.”  “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort;” he wrote, “as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals… that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own.”[17]

Just as government is taking an increasingly dim view of personal property in this country,[18] they are taking an equally dim view of the rights of conscience, at least when the beliefs in question do not align with those of the progressive Left.

Rather than being secure, liberty of conscience finds itself under attack by those who feel we must all think and act alike on certain issues.  While there have been occasional victories, liberty of conscience still finds itself, at least on the subject of homosexual marriage, very much on the defensive.  We hope and pray that soon-to-be Justice Neil Gorsuch will help bring sanity to this pitiable situation.

Liberty of conscience, at the very heart of the settlement and formation of America, must be preserved if America is to remain America.  Samuel Adams told those gathered in the State House in Philadelphia on August 1, 1776, “…[f]reedom of thought and the right of private judgement, in matters of conscience, driven from every other corner of the earth, direct their course to this happy country as their last asylum.”[19]

No longer.

“If there be a government then which prides itself in maintaining the inviolability of property; which provides that none shall be taken directly even for public use without indemnification to the owner, and yet directly violates the property which individuals have in their opinions, their religion, their persons, and their faculties; … such a government is not a pattern for the United States.  If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights: they will rival the government that most sacredly guards the former; and by repelling its example in violating the latter, will make themselves a pattern to that and all other governments.”[20] (emphasis added)

As “James Madison” tells the school kids I visit, if you do not know your rights and/or are not willing to defend and assert them, you effectively have no rights and are on the road to slavery.  If Americans, and particularly Christian Americans, don’t stand united against this oppression, as Ronald Reagan once said: …”we will wake up one day telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

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[1] James Madison letter to Thomas Jefferson, 17 Oct 1788.

[2] Isaiah 30:21.


[4] From James Madison to William Bradford-24 January 1774


[6] Hobby Lobby Stores & Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell.

[7] Sherbert v. Verner 374 U.S. 398 (1963)

[8] Thomas v. Review of Indiana Employment Security Division 450 U.S. 707 (1981)

[9] Wisconsin v. Yoder 406 U.S. 205 (1972)

[10] Seeger v. United States (1965) and Welsh v. United States (1970)











Constitutional Corner – Right of Petition

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“In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”

Petitioning for a redress of grievances was an integral part of British politics and had been for hundreds of years.  The right of petition traced its lineage back at least to the first Magna Carta (1215), perhaps earlier. Through its acceptance by King John, Magna Carta implicitly affirmed a right of petition.  In addition, the document contained these words:

“If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice—to declare it and claim immediate redress.” (Emphasis added)

Thus the barons reserved a right to petition to make known certain “transgressions” of the peace and claim their redress.

The 1628 Petition of Right presented to King Charles I was another early exercise of the right.  The petition was once again reluctantly accepted by the King (he had little choice – Charles desperately needed the funding that would follow).

In 1669, Parliament recognized the right of every British subject to petition Parliament, and the 1689 English Bill of Rights, which followed the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, explicitly affirmed the “right of the subjects to petition the king.”[1]

When it came time for their own revolution, the colonists set about it much as their British brethren had – by the petition process.

In the colonies, the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties was the first document to explicitly affirm a right of petition:

“12. Every man whether Inhabitant or foreigner, free or not free shall have liberty to come to any public Court, Counsel, or Town meeting, and either by speech or writing to move any lawful, seasonable, and material question, or to present any necessary motion, complaint, petition, Bill or information, whereof that meeting hath proper cognizance, so it be done in convenient time, due order, and respective manner.” (Emphasis added)

Five other colonies eventually enacted similar guarantees.

Petitions played an important role in early American history as novice legislatures worked to establish their stride, define their powers, and help the struggling colonists meet basic survival needs. “[The petition] process originated more bills in pre-constitutional America than any other source of legislation.”[2]

Petitions also played a revolutionary role as well.  King James II assumed the throne of England in 1685 and quickly alienated many of his subjects, both at home and in the colonies, with his statements affirming the divine right of kings and favoritism shown to his co-religionists: the Catholics.  James imposed strict authority over the colonies and ordered a consolidation of several northern colonies under the autocratic rule of a new governor, Sir Edmund Andros. Andros imposed new taxes, abolished colonial assemblies, and abridged long-standing citizens’ rights.

On April 18, 1689, after learning that the King had fled England  the previous November (as a result of the Glorious Revolution of 1688), Bostonians stormed the fort of Boston and demanded the ouster of Andros. Anxious to avoid mob violence, a group of Boston merchants and other “first citizens,” presented a petition calling on the Governor to step down from office. After being imprisoned on Castle Island, the Governor escaped to Rhode Island, was re-captured, and sent to England for trial.  In London,  the agents for Massachusetts refused to sign documents listing the charges against Andros, so he was summarily acquitted, released and subsequently appointed as governor of both Virginia and Maryland.

1765 saw the first truly collective colonial petitions.  The Stamp Act Congress, with nine colonies represented, sent Parliament a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances.” The thirteenth of those rights read:

“That it is the right of the British subjects in these colonies, to petition the king or either house of parliament.” (Emphasis added)

Nine years later, on October 14, 1774, the First Continental Congress sent Parliament a “Declaration and Resolves,” which read in part:

“Resolved, … That they have a right peaceably to assemble, consider of their grievances, and petition the King; and that all prosecutions, prohibitory proclamations, and commitments for the same, are illegal.”  (Emphasis added)

After settling on this statement of rights, Congress immediately sent a similar petition to the King himself.

On July 5, 1775, a little over two months after Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress approved the “Olive Branch Petition.”  And the very next day approved “A Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking Up Arms,” which documented that:

“A Congress of delegates from the United Colonies was assembled at Philadelphia, on the fifth day of last September. We resolved again to offer an humble and dutiful petition to the King, and also addressed our fellow-subjects of Great-Britain:”

Once they arrived in England, the King refused to receive either document.  Those hoping for a reconciliation watched their chances wither.

The next year, the resumed Second Congress made clear that they had exhausted all means of peaceful petition by affirming: “Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”

Why go to such lengths – repeated petitions to be precise – just to state your case?

The Colonists saw petitions as an implementation of due process.  Before effecting a political separation, they determined they must show their efforts at reconciliation had been repelled.

And so the separation – and the revolution – began.  But as John Adams was careful to point out much later, the true revolution had begun long, long before.

“But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”[3]

Likewise, Benjamin Rush noted that the revolution did not conclude with the last musket shot:

“The American war is over; but this [is] far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government, and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens for these forms of government after they are established and brought to perfection.”[4]

At the Virginia Ratifying Convention on June 26, 1788, the delegates responded to the lack of a Bill of Rights in the proposed Constitution by forwarding 20 rights articles and 20 additional amendments.  The bulk of the suggested Bill of Rights articles were copied verbatim from the 1776 Virginia Bill of Rights; but the following suggested article was new:

“15th. … [T]he people have a right peaceably to assemble together to consult for the common good, or to instruct their representatives; and that every freeman has a right to petition or apply to the Legislature for redress of grievances.”

Interestingly, the Virginia delegates were ready to give the new nation’s citizens a right their own state’s residents did not then enjoy.  As we know, this right was incorporated into what became the First Amendment.  During debate on the amendment, an early draft stating that people had a “right to instruct their representatives” was defeated due to the overbearing inference.  Still, members affirmed the legislatures’ obligation to receive and consider such petitions, even if they would not be bound by them.  Finally came the familiar words:

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of … the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

But what does this right entail today?  Must citizens first assemble in order to petition?  The amendment can be read that way.  To whom and how are petitions to be addressed?  Must those petitions be received and responded to?  And what if no “redress” results; what is to happen if those petitions are, as they were 240 years ago, met by repeated injury?  So many unanswered questions.

After the Constitution went into effect, citizens regularly petitioned the Congress for the passage of specific legislation and “redress of grievances.”  However, the first wide-spread exercise of the right was in advocating the end of slavery in the mid-1830s. Congress had enacted rules of order whereby each business day began with state delegations reading petitions they had received.  In 1837 and 1838, Congress received 130,000 petitions related to slavery alone.  The deluge soon became unmanageable and threatened the ability of Congress to accomplish other needful work; many Congressmen pondered the correct response:

“If the people have a right to petition their representatives it is our duty to receive their petitions.”[5]

Receive them, yes, but to what end?  The House of Representatives adopted a rule that tabled such petitions, meaning that they would “lay upon the table” and receive no other attention.  But abolitionists such as John Quincy Adams, were eventually successful in repealing this rule, arguing that it was contrary to the people’s right of petition.

But petitioning the government can sometimes lead to unexpected results.  During WWI, petitions suggesting repeal of the new espionage and sedition laws sometimes resulted in imprisonment.[6]

Today, no one disputes the right to petition the government, at any level, for a redress of grievances.  But still, the sparse words of the First Amendment provide us no further guidance as to how, when, where.

And so enter the courts.  Case law concerning the right of petition is thin, but still significant.

In 1875,[7] the Supreme Court declared “The right of the people peaceably to assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress for a redress of grievances, or for anything else connected with the powers or duties of the National Government, is an attribute of national citizenship, and, as such, under the protection of and guaranteed by the United States.” (Emphasis added)

In 1954,[8] the Court ruled Congress can require registration of paid lobbyists.

In 1963,[9] the right of petition was incorporated against the states for the first time.

In 1985,[10] the Court held that the right to petition does not provide absolute immunity to petitioners; it is subject to the same restrictions as other First Amendment rights,  i.e., there is no immunity from liability over what you say in the petition.

In 1980,[11] the court upheld a military regulation requiring that military members get permission from their base commander before circulating petitions to Congress on base.  The Court ruled the regulation did not infringe the individual right to petition.

In 1988,[12] the Court ruled that states could not bar groups from hiring individuals to circulate petitions in support of a ballot measure.

In 1999,[13] the Court ruled that states could not require petition circulators to be registered voters, wear name badges, or disclose information about themselves and their salaries.

In 2010,[14] the Supreme Court ruled that the government’s disclosure of the names of voters who signed a referendum petition did not violate the First Amendment.

When compared with other first amendment rights, this is indeed a sparse set of controversies.

“Under modern Supreme Court jurisprudence, the right to petition has been almost completely collapsed into freedom of speech.”[15]

Exactly.  Where does your right of speech end and your right of petition begin?  In today’s world of instant communication, petition and speech become hopelessly intertwined.  Today, we can pick up the phone and talk with a staff member in our Congressman’s office (good luck getting connected directly to the member, they are out of their offices more than in).  We can send our representatives a letter or an email, either from our own mail system or through the member’s website.  If we have the time and energy, we can make an appointment and speak directly with our Congressman in their Washington, D.C. or district office.  All of these methods are available to groups as well.

We have all seen the numerous emails from special interest groups imploring us to “flood Congressman X’s office with emails concerning issue XYZ, or this or that pending legislation” (normally accompanied by an appeal for donations).  Do these petitions work?

The Congressional Management Foundation,[16] was established to “work[] directly with Members of Congress and staff to enhance their operations and interactions with constituents.  CMF works directly with citizen groups to educate them on how Congress works, giving constituents a stronger voice in policy outcomes.  The results are: a Congress more accountable, transparent, and effective; and an informed citizenry with greater trust in their democratic institutions.”

On the subject of “Communicating with Congress,” CMF provides a series of informative reports[17] you can download and study at your leisure.

Tim Hysom is the Director for Communications and Technology Services at CMF.  He was asked by one group: “Does sending emails to Congress still work?”  His response:

“Sending your views to Members of Congress does work, no matter what format they arrive in. Senators and Representatives want to know how their votes affect their constituents. One thing people always ask me is, “How many messages does a Member of Congress need to receive in order to change their mind?” There are as many answers to that question as there are Members of Congress: 541.[18] Sometimes a Member can be swayed by a single heartfelt and articulate message from a constituent. Sometimes it’s the sheer volume of communications that they receive that persuades them. One important note, however, is that congressional offices do like postal communications because it is easy to see that the constituent took the time to write a handwritten letter, but email is far easier for them to process and will ensure that your message arrives more quickly. The bottom line is that, yes, emails still work, but they are generally most effective if they are personal messages rather than form messages.”[19]

Here are some suggestions[20] when writing a letter to a Congressman.

Today, many people don’t bother communicating with their Congressional Representatives; they conclude theirs is but one voice in a sea of voices.  They should reconsider.

Also bound up with the right of petition is the right to peaceably assemble to do so.  But when does protest or demonstration depart from the right of peaceable assembly?  I think the answer is in the word: “peaceably.”  “Peaceable” normally also mean lawful, which means protests must follow laws set up to ensure the rights of others are not infringed by those desiring to protest or assemble.  Notice that Jefferson emphasized that the colonists’ petitions had used “the most humble terms.”  Even if no action was taken in Parliament, many members of Parliament took note of and expressed thanks for the colonists’ tone.

Recent “protests” in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere over the shooting of Michael Brown obviously crossed the line and became riots, with predictable police response.  These serve no societal good.  Allowing people to “vent” their anger, at the expense of another’s private or commercial property, ultimately serves no greater purpose.

When Benjamin franklin answered: “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it,” he was telling us all that a republic is something that requires “care and feeding.”  Among other responsibilities, that means engagement.  The people are the true sovereigns in a republic, government employees work for them.  If the people don’t take the time to communicate their hopes as well as their grievances, who will?

Repeated petitions to the British government to leave the European Union were seen by  candidate for Prime Minister David Cameron as a rising groundswell of support.  As part of his platform he promised if elected to support a referendum vote on the matter.  As we know, that vote finally took place this month and resulted in 52% of the votes being cast in favor of exit (the turnout was 72% of the electorate, the highest turnout in a UK-wide vote since the 1992 general election).[21]

Seeing the success of the British citizens efforts, 261,159 Austrian citizens (4.12 percent of the electorate) signed a petition demanding that their government hold a similar vote on whether to remain in the EU.  As a result of the petition, ministers are obliged to at least discuss the possibility of holding a referendum vote on the issue.

As with any right, your right to petition can be abused.  Persistent petitioners who disrupt civil order sometimes encounter opposition and even legal action.  An Iowa state law prohibiting convicted sex offenders from circulating petitions was enacted specifically to limit the efforts of a certain Rapid City man whose incessant petition solicitations were disrupting court business.

Is the right of petitioning limited to the powers available for redress?  That is, can you only petition for or against something within the power of Congress (or the party petitioned) to address?  For a clear answer we need only turn to the current White House publicity stunt, the “We the People” petition.  President Obama ordered that a section of the website be set aside for petitioning the current administration’s policy experts. Petitions that garner 100,000 or more signatures[22] must be reviewed by officials in the Administration and official responses issued, (there are some exceptions).

Roughly 70 percent of current petitions ask that individual states — like Texas[23] — be allowed to peacefully secede.  In other words, most petitions request actions the Executive branch has no power to effect.

Although most petitions are serious, some are not.  In November 2012, a petition was created urging the government to create an actual Star Wars-style Death Star as an economic stimulus and job creation measure.  The petition gained more than 25,000 signatures, enough to qualify (at that time) for an official response. The official (tongue-in-cheek) response released in January 2013 noted that the cost of building a real Death Star was estimated at $852 quadrillion.  At the current rates of steel production, the weapon would not be ready for more than 833,000 years.  The response also noted that “the Administration does not support blowing up planets” and questions funding a weapon “with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship.”  Other less-than-serious petitions have requested the deportation of British-born CNN host Piers Morgan (not a bad idea), the designation and protection of the Sasquatch as an indigenous species, and nationalization of the Twinkie.  The Atlantic Monthly magazine[24] called the petition site a “joke” (but also the future of democracy).

I recommend not wasting one’s time on the We The People petition website, but I do think you should take your individual and collective right of petition seriously and exercise it often.  To be effective, realize that this will require you to keep track of pending legislation in Congress, study the legislation, and then communicate to your elected representatives how you recommend they vote on the matter.  This is republican government in action.

Or, you could pay no attention to what is happening in Washington, D.C. and hope for the best.  Hey, this is America, “Land of the Free,”[25] you can do whatever you want!

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[1] That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal;

[2] Stephen A. Higginson, “A Short History of the Right to Petition Government for a Redress of Grievances,” Yale Law Journal, Vol. 91, No. 1, (Nov 1986), p. 142.

[3] Letter to Hezekiah Niles, 13 February 1818.

[4] Address to the People of the United States, January 1787.

[5] Record of the Senate, 1836.

[6] The Supreme Court A to Z, 3rd Edition, Kenneth Jost, ed., 2003, p. 312.

[7] United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1875).

[8] United States v. Harriss, 347 U.S. 612 (1954).

[9] Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229 (1963).

[10] McDonald v. Smith, 472 U.S. 479 (1985).

[11] Secretary of Navy v. Huff, 444 U.S. 453 (1980).

[12] Meyer v. Grant, 486 U.S. 414 (1988).

[13] Buckley V. American Constitutional Law Foundation, 525 U.S. 182 (1999) .

[14] Doe v. Reed, 561 U.S. 186 (2010).

[15] The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, 2nd Ed., 2014, David F. Forte, Sr. Ed., Matthew Spalding, Ex Ed., p. 415.



[18] This figure includes non-voting representatives of Guam, etc.




[22] The threshold started out at a measly 5,000.



[25] For perhaps a little while longer.

The Constitution’s Week in Review – 9 July 16

Article 1 – The Legislature

A few of you may not subscribe to National Review magazine.[1]  That is unfortunate because NR has some of the best contributing writers in the conservative world.  Each issue is chock-a-block full of interesting articles.  Senator Mike Lee has written a particularly fitting one in the current issue entitled: “The Incredible Shirking Congress[2] (I know, it is easy to read the title as the “Incredible Shrinking Congress” at first glance).

Lee lays out a persuasive argument that our mess in Washington is largely Congress’ fault and won’t be fixed until Congress steps up to the plate and resumes the dominant role the Founders intended them to have in the national government.  Congress writes overly vague laws and allows executive branch agencies to “fill in the details,” which the unelected bureaucrats in those agencies are more than happy to do.  Lee points out that Congress passed and President Obama signed 3,291 pages of new legislation in 2014; but that same year executive agencies issued 79,066 pages of new regulations!  Congress also has abandoned regular order in the authorization and appropriate process.  Despite the President’s desire for deficit spending, Congress must appropriate every penny spent, so the blame for our $20 Trillion in official national debt sits on Congress’ shoulders alone.  Federal programs are routinely re-appropriated which have exceeded their authorized mandate and the annual “Pig Book[3] demonstrates that millions, if not billions, of wasteful spending takes place each year.

I encourage you to read the article in full, and then purchase a copy of Senator Lee’s book: “Our Lost Constitution,”[4] which more expansively lays out the problems that must be solved to return to true constitutional order in this country.

Article 3 – The Judiciary

Cultural Issues in the Courts.  I’ve been commenting on court cases with cultural impact for quite some time.  This week I learned of a website that does essentially the same thing and perhaps even better.  So I’m going to include a link to that site[5] in all future essays and hope you take the time to read their articles.

Here’s a nice analysis[6] of the impact my favorite Justice, Clarence Thomas, has had on the Supreme Court.

1st Amendment – Right of Conscience

More “Bias” Response Groups Appear.

Another “Bias Response Group[7] springs up, this time at Skidmore College, a liberal arts college in Saratoga Springs, New York.  Joining our police and firemen as “first responders,” the groups attempt to point out the obvious: we all have biases.  I’m biased (hopefully consistently) in favor of good over evil.  That is a bias we should wish on everyone.  But the Bias Response Groups are not interested in promoting “good” bias, only calling out “bad” bias (as they define it).

It was news to me to learn that writing the phrase: “Make America Great Again” on a college whiteboard reflects a “bad” bias (rather than support for Donald Trump).  Perhaps we are intended to take from this is that support for Donald Trump himself reflects a “bad” bias.

Regardless, you can see how quickly this can, and has gotten out of hand.  I wonder whether eight years ago a Bias Response Group would have come running if “Fundamentally Transform America” was found surreptitiously written on a college whiteboard.  These are not really Bias Response Groups, as anyone can plainly see; they are “Politically Incorrect Bias Response Groups.”  And Free Speech continues its slow but inexorable death in America.

Representative John Fleming [R-LA-4] and Senator James Lankford, [R-OK] have introduced the Conscience Protection Act of 2016 (H.R.4828 in the House, S.2927 in the Senate)

These bills (and similar ones) will provide legal protection for healthcare workers and organizations that do not wish to participate in or support the abortion industry in any way.  Although there is an email floating around stating that the House bill will be voted on on Wednesday, 13 July, the current House and Senate websites show both bills still tied up in either committee or subcommittee.  Nevertheless, if you support these bills, contacting the members of the committees or your own representatives would be an appropriate way to register your support.

The Effort To Destroy Christian Doctrine Continues.

The effort to push Christianity from the public square continues unabated.  Dating sites, like,[8] with a publically Christian focus must now grant access to homosexuals seeking relationships with their same sex[9] even if that runs counter to the organization’s firmly held biblical standards.

Freedom of conscience continues to be transformed in America.  Soon you’ll be able to think whatever you want, privately.  If you try to express certain beliefs publically, or, heaven forbid, act on them, you will find yourself on the wrong side of the law.  Even some Supreme Court Justices, such as Associate Justice Sam Alito, are becoming alarmed at the mounting anti-Christian bias in the courts.

And Christian pastors remain silent.  Nothing to see here folks, move along.  Where does your pastor stand on this?  Do they deserve your continued support?

2nd Amendment –  Where Do We Go From Here?

Dallas. The tragedy in Dallas, overshadowing the two civilian deaths at the hands of policemen that preceded it (and which may indeed have sparked it), deserves more than a passing remark.

Reactions will be predictable: from the Left: disarm the public, who have demonstrated that they can’t be trusted to resolve anger without the use of firearms; from the Right: arm everyone and prosecute groups, like Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, which advocate violence against anyone, particularly the police.  Neither of these responses addresses the root problem: racial distrust.

In the wake of Dallas, the Minnesota officer’s reaction to the innocuous movement of hands by a black man who had just told the officer he was armed, takes on a new perspective.  Why would any armed white policeman fear a routine traffic stop with a black motorist (over a broken tail light, no less) enough to fire his weapon at the slightest movement of the motorist’s hands?  Is there any better illustration of the state of race relations in this country?  We have heard repeatedly that blacks fear confrontations with white policemen, now we see there is equal fear in white policemen over confrontations with black motorists.

Certainly the nation’s policemen, in the days and weeks which follow, have reason to be cautious, on or off the job, as further shootings of policemen have demonstrated.  And just as certainly, motorists and pedestrians alike must learn to calmly and explicitly comply with an officer’s instructions, avoiding any appearance of confrontation.

These events have revealed deeply ingrained opinions, whether right or wrong, whether justified or not, about other races, which points to the urgent need for dialogue.  We have to come together, talk to one another, and try to better understand each other’s point of view, each other’s prejudices.  We have to understand how these preconceived notions were created in the first place.  And then we need to develop better methods of resolving complaints.

Our nations’ churches are the most obvious and the best place for this dialogue to occur, and no doubt some courageous pastors have already taken steps to facilitate these discussions.  But many will not; many pastors have become so fearful of offending someone, anyone, so fearful of driving away a potential contributor, that they are paralyzed by their own fear.  They will boldly preach the Gospel, but purposefully avoid addressing cultural issues.  This must stop.

Is it a “No-Fly” or a “No-Buy” List?  More information continues to dribble out about individuals unfortunate enough to share a name with a known terrorist and end up on the FBI’s infamous “No-Fly List.”[10]  It is not so much that occasional but inevitable mistakes might be made by nameless unelected bureaucrats, it is the arduous, sometimes years-long process of rectifying the situation and getting your name removed from the list.  If you don’t enjoy the political pull of a Congressman or a state elected official, good luck.  It is called the “law of unintended consequences” and it works in conjunction with the 2nd Amendment as well.

4th Amendment.

I reported on this issue barely a month ago (4 June 16); it refuses to go away.

Could someone tell me why it takes “four years, two congressional hearings, and countless pleas to the IRS and Justice Department” to convince the IRS to return property it never should have taken in the first place?[11]  Pity the poor citizen who doesn’t think to involve his Congressional representatives in staring down this out-of-control agency.

The issue is “structuring,” a term applied to depositing or withdrawing your own money from your own bank account in a way that the IRS believes is intended to avoid mandatory reporting of transactions – such reporting becomes required at the “magic” $10,000 mark.  Disregard the fact that you may be keeping transactions below $10K merely to keep your bank from having to go through the rigamarole, the time and expense, of submitting what you see as unnecessary or even unconstitutional reports.

To the IRS you’re a drug dealer, pure and simple, there could be no other reason for your behavior, so, chucking your right of due process in the dustbin, the IRS seizes your bank account, all of it, apparently so you don’t try to withdraw the money and flee the country.

I’m sure there are many fine upstanding citizens working for the IRS.  I’m equally sure are many partisan apparatchiks trying their best to use the power of their office for partisan ends.  I reported recently (18 June 16) that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed a “Contempt of Congress” resolution against IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.  I suspect Speaker Paul Ryan will refuse to bring the resolution to the floor for a vote.  If you agree with the Speaker’s action, do nothing; if you feel that is shirking a duty, the Speaker’s office awaits your letter, phone call or email.

Recommendations and Events:

Constitution Seminars.

I am now scheduling Constitution Seminars for the month of October.  If you want one for your church or community group, please let me know ASAP.

Last Call: Lessons in Liberty.  On Monday, July 11, from 7:00-9:00 p.m. EDT, The Foundation for American Christian Education’s Lessons in Liberty series will welcome Jim Wallis, who will speak on the topic: Was Jesus a Socialist?  You can attend in the FACE classroom in Chesapeake, Virginia, or live online via Livestream.

The lecture will explore the divergence of both Christianity and the Jewish people from their covenantal, Hebraic roots, and will take on related questions such as: “Was the early church communal in the modern Marxist sense?” and “How about the Moses/Joshua Hebrew model, was it a republic or a theocracy?”

The cost to attend, either in the classroom or online, is $10.  Register at

We The People – The Constitution Matters Radio Show.


On Friday, 15 July, we will discuss the principle of “petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.”  This principle, mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, had a long history in English law and the colonists felt a moral obligation to use it before claiming the right of separation.  Parliament and the King ignored their petitions and forced both sides into a costly war.  In 1789, James Madison ensured we would continue to enjoy the right by securing it in the First Amendment.


I invite you to browse to  (7-8am EDT) and then join the discussion by calling in.  If you miss the recorded show, it is re-broadcast each Saturday at 11am and Sunday at 2pm.


The “Constitution’s Week in Review” is a project of the Constitution Leadership Initiative, Inc.  To unsubscribe from future mailings by Constitution Leadership Initiative, click here.












The Founders’ View of Natural Law

Note: A few months ago someone in my area decided to form a Natural Law Discussion group.  I joined, and I’ve enjoyed some vibrant and informative discussions as we explored the long history of natural law, natural rights, and the key philosophers who, over millennia, have theorized about both.  Each member of the group takes turn researching and then presenting on one of the people who played major roles in expounding upon the subject: Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, etc.  What follows is my contribution to the effort; it was presented to the group on 28 June 2016.

Natural Law and Natural Rights are enjoying a mild renaissance today, largely as a result of new interest in the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.  That this interest comes in response to blatant violations of constitutional order, including attacks on traditionally understood rights and principles by the Obama administration, particularly the right of conscience, is unfortunate, but proves the need for the renaissance.  Poll after depressing poll shows Americans to be Constitutionally illiterate, ignorant of other Founding documents and American history in general, and disengaged from the vital role all citizens must play in “keeping” the Republic.

The Founders believed wholeheartedly in Natural Law and Natural Rights; that much is easily demonstrated.  Jefferson’s invocation of natural law in the Declaration of Independence (“the laws of nature and nature’s God) as a means of justifying the colonists’ separation from Great Britain is certainly the most famous and widely known reference.  But beyond what we find expressed in the Declaration, what shape did the Founder’s understanding of natural law take?  What were the contours?

To answer that question we will first ask: Where and how did the Founding Fathers learn about natural law in the first place?

In one sense, they needn’t have studied the subject at all.  St. Paul wrote that God’s moral law, part of the natural law, is “written on the heart”[1] of each individual.  We intuitively know that we have the option of right and wrong behavior because God imprinted this information into our consciousness from the start.  But we know from experience and observation that the moral law written on each individual heart is not always perceived or acted upon correctly.  Sin clouds are ability to discern this law with complete accuracy.  A more complete revelation is thus needed and God supplies that, and supplied it as well to those of the Founding Period, through the Bible.  “[T]he Bible… was… found in nearly every home,” writes historian Forrest McDonald; and, we can add: read, studied and internalized.  William Bradford wrote in his famous journal, “On Plimouth Plantation,” that the Pilgrim settlers had no choice but to camp near their landing on the Massachusetts shoreline. They could not, “as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah to view from this wilderness a more goodly country.”  Bradford did not need to elaborate or explain his reference to an obscure mountaintop in the Middle-east where Moses first glimpsed the Promised Land, Bradford’s contemporaries would have instantly understood, and seen the parallel.

But the Founders learned during their classical schooling and in their later study as adults that there was more to Natural Law than what is revealed in the Bible alone.

In 1825, a year before he would die, Thomas Jefferson explained the reasoning behind the Declaration of Independence to old friend and fellow Virginian, Henry Lee.  Jefferson wrote: “All [the] authority [of the Declaration of Independence] rests … on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”[2]

The “elementary books of public right” were also the elementary books of natural law.  The existence of natural law and the foundation it provided for natural rights was clearly one of Jefferson’s “harmonizing sentiments of the day.”  But an examination of the authors Jefferson cites in his letter to Lee confirms that the Founders were exposed to many different and not always “harmonizing” views of natural law.  Aristotle and Locke, for example, took decidedly different views of the subject, as did Cicero and Sidney.  Plus, the authors Jefferson cites were not the only ones the Founders read.  Every Founder of adequate means purchased and read many other books that either focused on or at least touched on the subject.

In his insightful essay: “A Founding Father’s Library,” historian Forrest McDonald lists many books that one could expect to find in nearly every Founder’s library — books such as: “The Rights of War and Peace” by Hugo Grotius, “The Laws of Nature and Nations” by Samuel Pufendorf, and “The Principles of Natural and Political Law” by Jean Jacques Burlamaqui.  Emmerich Vattel’s “Law of Nations” and “the celebrated Montesquieu’s” “Spirit of the Laws” were both favorites.  Sir William Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws of England” and Edward Coke’s “Institutes of the Lawes of England” were digested by everyone undergoing legal training.  According to James Madison, Blackstone’s four volumes were “in every man’s hand.”  Another “elementary book[] of public right,” Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government, over which he lost his head, literally, has been called the “textbook of the American Revolution.”[3] All these authors had something to say about natural law and natural rights and the Founders quoted from them all.

Interestingly, Coke and Blackstone, the two great jurists, both harmonized natural law with God’s law.  Blackstone explaining the “the laws of nature” this way: “This will of [our] maker is called the law of nature.  For as God, when he created matter, and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the…direction of that motion; so, when he created man, and endued him with freewill to conduct himself in all parts of life, he laid down certain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that freewill is in some degree regulated and restrained, and gave him also the faculty of reason to discover the purport of those laws….Such among others are these principles: that we should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render to every one his due..” Blackstone explained the “laws of Nature’s God” by writing: “[D]ivine providence… in compassion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason, hath been pleased, at sundry times and in diverse manners, to discover and enforce its laws by an immediate and direct revelation. The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures.”

Constitution signer James Wilson summarized it this way: “The law of nature and the law of revelation are both Divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is indeed preposterous to separate them from each other.”

“By the 17th century, natural law philosophy had developed into a multifarious body of thought with distinct conservative and radical strains.  The conservative natural law school exemplified by such thinkers as Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, and Samuel Pufendorf drew decidedly authoritarian political implications from the natural law principle of natural liberty and equality.  They tended to emphasize a strong, and even absolute, version of political sovereignty and generally rejected popular self-government and the right of revolution.  For their part, radical natural law theorists such as John Locke, Benedict Spinoza, and Algernon Sidney built an argument for popular sovereignty on the bedrock principles of individual rights, especially the right to property and the right of conscience, as well as a natural right of revolution.”[4]

In addition to this philosophical divide, Aristotle and Cicero wrote of a purely natural law, not sourced in God, while Locke, Sidney, Blackstone and Coke all pointed to God as the origin of this law.  Hobbes and Aquinas took equally opposing views. How did the Founders distill these many conflicting viewpoints?

Despite this splintering of natural law theory, or perhaps because of it, by 1776, the British legal system had already begun to abandon natural law theory in favor of the supremacy of Parliament.  The Founders saw this sea change taking place and became more vehement in their insistence on natural law as the foundation for their rights.

Since the majority of the dominant Founders were lawyers, we can conclude that the view of Cooke and Blackstone prevailed over that of Cicero and Aristotle.  That is not to say that Cicero and Aristotle did not contribute to the Founders’ view of political philosophy in other significant ways.  While some Founders may have held to a purely naturalistic view of natural rights; the theistic view clearly predominated.  Carl Becker, scholar of the Declaration, concluded that “the natural rights philosophy was essentially at one with the Christian faith.”[5]

The Founders, some of them at least, also modified their views over time.  Early on, Thomas Jefferson was heavily influenced by both Coke and Locke. He constantly recommended Locke to his friends, provided Locke a prominent place in the curriculum of the University of Virginia, and even remarked that “Locke’s little book on government is perfect as far as it goes.”  Of Coke, Jefferson wrote: “Coke Lyttleton was the universal elementary book of law students and a sounder Whig never wrote nor of profounder learning in the orthodox doctrines of . . . British liberties.”

In 1770, young lawyer Thomas Jefferson defended a black slave of mixed-race heritage in an attempt to gain his freedom.  Jefferson argued (unsuccessfully) that “everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person and using it at his own will … This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because it is necessary for his own sustenance.”  In A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), Jefferson asserted that Parliament had no power to encroach “upon those rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all.”  Later, in his Notes on Virginia (1781), Jefferson warned: “… can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”  In 1823, Jefferson toned down the theism of his previous writings: “We believed, with them, that man was a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights, and with an innate sense of justice…”[6] (emphasis added)

We should also note that of the three references to God in the Declaration of Independence, only the first was in Jefferson’s original draft, the other two[7] were added by the full Congress.

In his 1776 essay entitled: On the Right to Rebel Against Governors, The Reverend Samuel West says: “The most perfect freedom consists in obeying the dictates of right reason, and submitting to natural law. When a man goes beyond or contrary to the law of nature and reason, he becomes the slave of base passions and vile lusts; he introduces confusion and disorder into society, and brings misery and destruction upon himself. This, therefore, cannot be called a state of freedom, but a state of the vilest slavery and the most dreadful bondage. The servants of sin and corruption are subjected to the worst kind of tyranny in the universe. Hence we conclude that where licentiousness begins, liberty ends.”

This minister’s reference to “right reason” is pure Aristotelian, while his warning about “servants of sin” could have equally been said by Aquinas.

Samuel Adams, “The Last Puritan,” also mixed his references.  In The Rights of the Colonists, published in November 1772, he wrote: “If men, through fear, fraud, or mistake, should in terms renounce and give up any essential natural right, the eternal law of reason and the great end of society, would absolutely vacate such renunciation; the right to freedom being the gift of God Almighty, it is not in the power of man to alienage this gift, and voluntarily become a slave.”  Adams suggests we use our faculty of reason to conclude that our natural rights should not be alienated, because they are the gift of God.  The Founders say no conflict between reason and revelation; the two were not mutually exclusive, both had a role to play.

In an essay published in the Boston Gazette in August 1765 (two months before the Stamp Act Congress convened), John Adams insisted that: “[You have] rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.”

Adams later wrote that the principles of the American Revolution were “the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands.”[8]

The following Founders (at least) acknowledged natural rights and natural law in their writings: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Wilson, James Iredell, Oliver Ellsworth, Benjamin Rush, Gouverneur Morris, Roger Sherman, John Quincy Adams, John Dickinson, George Nicholas, James Monroe, Edmund Randolph, George Mason, Patrick henry, Richard Henry Lee, George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry, Sam Adams, John Hancock, and James Otis.  Samuel Bryan (“Centinel”), Richard Henry Lee ( “The Federal Farmer”?) , and Robert Yates “(Brutus”) all expressed their views during the ratification debates.

While perhaps not every single one of the Founders would agree that God was the source of natural law, they all agreed that natural rights sprang from that law, and they took every opportunity to document those rights.  Here is a partial list of key “rights” documents composed during the Founding Period:

  • 1639 – Fundamental Orders (Connecticut)
  • 1641 – Body of Liberties (Massachusetts)
  • 1677 – Declaration of the People (Virginia)
  • 1765 – Declaration of Rights and Grievances (Congress)
  • 1766 – An Inquiry Into the Rights of the British Colonies. (Richard Bland)
  • 1772 – The Rights of the Colonists (Samuel Adams)
  • 1774 – A Summary View of the Rights of British America (Thomas Jefferson)
  • 1774 – Declaration and Resolves (Congress)
  • 1775 – Declaration on the Causes of Taking Up Arms(Congress)
  • 1776 – Declaration of Rights (Virginia)
  • 1776 – Declaration of Independence (Congress)


Based on various writings and speeches of the Founders, following is a sampling of some of the rights attributed directly to natural law:

“all men are created equal” (Jefferson, Declaration, 1776)

“there is a parity of privileges,” (Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, 1775)

there is a “right to remain in a State of Nature as long as they please” (Samuel Adams, 1772)

there is a “right to life, liberty [and] property,” (numerous writers)

there is a “right to support and defend (life, liberty and property)” (Samuel Adams, 1772)

“every natural Right not expressly given up or from the nature of a Social Compact necessarily ceded, remains” Samuel Adams, 1772)

there is a “right of self defense,” (St. George Tucker, View of the Constitution of the United States, 1805)

there is a right of the people to alter their government (James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, 1764)

there is a “a right …to nullify … all assumptions of power by others” (Thomas Jefferson, Kentucky Resolutions, 1798)

there is a right to “pursu[e]and obtain[] happiness and safety.” (Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776)

there is a right to “conviction and conscience [over religious beliefs]” (James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” 1785)

there is a right of “speaking, writing and publishing their Sentiments with decency and freedom; of peaceably Assembling to consult their common good, and of applying to Government by petition or remonstrance for redress of grievances.” (Roger Sherman, Proposal to House Committee of Eleven, 1789)

there is a right to “trial by jury” (Declaration of Rights and Grievances, 1765)

“Additionally, some Virginians included in their natural rights such concepts as … freedom from ex post facto laws, the right to an impartial judge, and a right to defend their liberties by force…”[9]

This may seem to some a meager list.  James Iredell of North Carolina envisioned one much larger.  At the North Carolina Ratifying Convention on July 29, 1788, speaking of the need for a Bill of Rights, he said:  “Let any one make what collection or enumeration of rights he pleases, I will immediately mention twenty or thirty more rights not contained in it.”


While the Founders may have struggled to identify and articulate all their natural rights, an impossible task really, they entertained no confusion over the relationship between natural law and civil law, the former must take precedence over the later.

“All positive and civil laws, should conform as far as possible, to the Law of natural reason and equity.” Samuel Adams, The Rights of the Colonists.

“Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is Divine.”  James Wilson, Of the General Principles of Law and Obligation.

“When human laws contradict or discountenance the means which are necessary to preserve the essential rights of any society, they defeat the proper end of all laws and so become null and void.”  Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted.

“Now all acts of legislation apparently contrary to natural rights and justice … must be in the nature of things, considered as void.  The laws of nature are the laws of God, whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth.  A legislature must not obstruct our obedience to him from whose punishments they cannot protect us.  All human constitutions which contradict His laws we are in conscience bound to disobey.  Such have been the adjudication of our courts.”  George Mason, as argued in Robin v. Hardaway, Virginia General Court, 1772.

Finally, what about abridgement of their natural rights?  The Founders accepted the notion that natural rights were subject to limitations imposed by the natural law.  “All natural rights,” said Jefferson, “may be abridged or modified…by the [natural] law.”  But “only as we have submitted to them.  The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit.  We are answerable for them to our God.”  On another occasion Jefferson claimed “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”[10]  “This abridgement could take the form of (1) consideration for the common good, (2) respect for the equal rights of others, and (3) realization that when the basis of the right is absent, the exercise of the claimed right can properly be denied.”[11]

In summary, America’s Founders believed in natural law and most believed it was a gift of their Creator.  The thinking of some Founders on the subject appears to have also been influenced somewhat by enlightenment thinking.  Regardless of the source of natural law, such law was discoverable and actionable as a means of invoking natural rights.  It was their natural rights that the colonists felt were being abused and usurped, and a new nation resulted.

So, what’s the point?  Why is it important to understand the Founder’s views of Natural Law and Rights?  First, as I tell all my classes, you must understand the Founders’ worldview, which includes their view of law and rights, to correctly understand any documents from the Founding Period.  Second,  As secular society attempts to push the Christian community further and further into the corners of the public square, the idea that our natural rights are a gift of God is being replaced with a secular equivalent: that all rights are purely and simply a gift of Government.  To the extent that American society accepts this counterfeit theory, true liberty is lost and is replaced by subservience to an almighty, omniscient, and omnipresent civil government.  That’s where we are headed as a nation, and the secularists are determined to win this battle at all costs; many Americans, however, refuse to believe there is even a war afoot.  True freedom rests then on conservatives and other patriotic, freedom-loving Americans to keep the torch of natural rights burning brightly and not let it be extinguished.

My involvement in this Natural Rights discussion group has been quite rewarding and intellectually stimulating.  Why don’t you consider starting one in your area?

Suggested reading:

Natural Law, Natural Rights:

Phillip Hamburger, “Natural Rights, Natural Law and the American Constitutions” Yale Law Journal, Vol 102, pp. 907-960.

Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, “The Natural Law in the American Tradition” Fordham Law Review, Vol 79, Issue 4, p. 1513.

Clarence Manion, “The Natural Law Philosophy of the Founders,” Natural Law Institute Proceedings.

Clarence Manion, “The Founding Fathers and the Natural Law: A Study of the Source of Our Legal Institutions,” American Bar Association Journal, Vol 35, No. 6 June 1949, pp. 461-464, 529-530.

Chester James Antieau, “Natural Rights and The Founding Fathers-The Virginians,” 17 Wash. & Lee L.Rev. 43 (1960),

Brutus on “Rights”


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[1] Romans 2:15.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825

[3] Caroline Robbins, “Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government:Textbook of Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 1947, 3rd Series, 4:266-296

[4] Lee Ward, Natural Law and the Colonial Roots of American Constitutionalism, accessed at:

[5] Becker, What is Still Living in the Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson?, 48 Am. Hist. Rev. 691, 695 (1943)

[6] Letter to Judge William Johnson, June 12, 1823.

[7] “the Supreme Judge of the world,” “the protection of divine Providence,”


[9] Manion, p. 46.

[10] Letter to Dr. James Currie, Jan. 18, 1786.

[11] Antieau, p. 52.

The Constitution’s Week in Review – 18 June 16

Article 2 – Impeachment

We traditionally link impeachment to the Presidency, for good reason: impeachment is discussed in the Constitution in Article 2, which covers the Executive Branch, and we have indeed impeached two presidents (and almost a third).  But over the years we’ve impeached far more lesser officials, nearly all judges and justices.

Calls to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen appear to have petered out, but there remains an effort to censure the man for his agency’s abuse of power and his obfuscation in the face of Congress’ attempts to investigate that abuse.

On 15 June, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted on a censure resolution of Koskinen.[1]  The committee passed the resolution (HR 737) out of committee (23-15) to the full House for a vote.

 1st Amendment – Free Speech and Right of Conscience

Climate change proponents are becoming increasingly apoplectic when they encounter individuals (or companies) who would rather believe the science than the hysteria.  There are increasing calls for censoring anyone who is not yet convinced that man is going to destroy all life on earth if allowed to exhale willy-nilly (I’m only exaggerating slightly).  20 Democrat Attorneys General have banded together to make thinking differently about climate change and acting on those opinions a crime.  New York, California and the Virgin Islands are taking aggressive action using RICO statutes.

Break-break. In a bit of good news, on 14 June the House passed HR 5053: Preventing IRS Abuse and Protecting Free Speech Act.  The bill amends the Internal Revenue Code to prohibit the IRS from requiring a tax-exempt organization to include in annual returns the name, address, or other identifying information of any contributor.  Its fate in the Senate is unknown.

2nd Amendment – Never Let a Shooting Go To Waste

The reaction to the Orlando shooting has predictably been focused on the guns instead of the shooter.  It appears to be a complete mystery to some on the Left why an Islamist would want to kill homosexuals (see Quran (7:80-84) and Abu Dawud (4462)).

Barack Obama[2] and then Hillary Clinton[3] called for greater restrictions or renewal of a ban on “assault weapons” (no one in their right mind would use an AR-15 semi-automatic to assault anything if there were a true assault weapon available, but gun-grabbers are not easily deterred by definitions).

Not to be outdone, Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson called gun control a Homeland Security issue.  “We need to do something to minimize the opportunity for terrorists to get a gun in this country.”  Fine, although I would reword it slightly to say: “We need to do something to minimize the opportunity for terrorists already in this country to get a gun.”  But then who are the terrorists and how, really, are you going to “minimize” their opportunity to obtain a gun (this presumes they don’t already have one or more already)?  Johnson then suggested that people who find themselves on no-fly lists for some reason (like Fox News contributor Stephen Hayes did a couple of years ago) should not be able to purchase a weapon.  Assuming the list contained no errors, which we know is not the case, that would make sense and it appears Republicans are going to accede to the request.  More troubling, however, was Johnson’s inclusion of “various other lists” to screen purchase requests (What lists exactly? The IRS’ list of Tea party groups?).

Meanwhile, California continues to lead the nation in disarming its citizens.  Last week the 9th Circuit ruled[4] that California counties can require people who request concealed carry permits to show a specific reason why one is needed.   The judges didn’t bother to say what reasoning should be persuasive.  Since it is illegal to open-carry a weapon, loaded or unloaded, in most parts of California, the ruling would effectively leave most Californians (but not most criminals) unable to defend themselves outside their homes.  But hey, it’s becoming easier to have food and other goods delivered right to your doorstep, so soon the problem will solve itself.

Since the 9th Circuit’s ruling conflicts with those of other Circuit Courts it is likely the Supreme Court will be called upon to eventually settle the matter.  If Obama appointee Judge Merrick Garland is sitting on the bench by that time, I predict concealed carry will be disavowed as a 2nd Amendment protection.

Finally, we encounter Rolling Stone magazine’s call to repeal the 2nd Amendment.[5]  We knew this was coming.  Once the White House configured their website to read: “The Second Amendment gives citizens a right to keep and bear arms,” I knew it was only a matter of time before we would hear calls for repeal.  So fine, repeal the 2nd Amendment, and then show me where the Constitution grants the federal government the power to “infringe” gun ownership in any way.  It does not.  But alas, I forget; we long ago abandoned a Constitution of limited and enumerated powers in favor of one that, among other things, gives the Congress the power to define “General Welfare” any way they want.  Most Americans are oblivious of this point, however, and seem content to prefer a government that can provide their every need.

Towards the end of the week came news of the shooting of a British Member of Parliament, in supposedly gun-free Britain.

If any good comes from the Orlando tragedy it might take the form of a new awareness by homosexuals of their increasing vulnerability in light of the forced immigration of Muslims who have no intent to assimilate into American culture but who instead insist that Sharia govern both their lives and ours.   It appears homosexuals are getting the message.[6]  Wake up America!

p.s. As they noted on “The Five” after the shooting, if Mateen had tried to take on a biker bar instead of a gay bar, the outcome would certainly have been different.  Have you expressed your view of the 2nd Amendment to your elected officials recently?

4th Amendment – Search and Seizure: Civil Asset Forfeiture

In an amazing “Sicilian salute” to the 4th Amendment, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol (OHP) has purchased devices[7] that can empty gift cards you happen to be carrying if they suspect you have committed some crime.  Emphasis on the word “suspect.”   Due process of law is becoming a thing of the past at least in Oklahoma.

Note at the bottom of the linked article on this issue that the company providing OHP with the devices gets 7.7% of all money seized.  Hmmm.  One Oklahoma lawmaker promises to prohibit the devices in next year’s session, but we wonder how many Oklahoma citizens will suffer warrantless seizure in the meantime.

Recommendations:  I have a couple of books written or co-written by Brion McClanahan and I share his viewpoint on much of our current political mess.  Brion offers a neat little e-book on the “Forgotten Founders,” available as a free download, at:  I also encourage you to listen to his podcast: “Episode 22: Article V and the States.”

Constitution Seminars.  I have no Constitution Seminars scheduled at the moment.  If you have a group of 10 or more individuals within a day’s drive of Yorktown, Virginia, and would like one presented, let me know via email to:   Keep in mind that I’ll be unavailable from 1 August to 18 September.

Lessons in Liberty.  It’s not too late to sign up for the next Lessons in Liberty presentation, 20-23 June, by Dr. Gai Ferdon of Liberty University.  Dr. Ferdon will speak on the topic of “The Welfare State: $20 Trillion Dollars Later.”  Participants may attend either in the FACE classroom or online via Livestream (7-9pm EDT).  The cost for the four-day seminar is $35, but if you want to only attend 1-2 evenings registration will be $10 per night.  Register at

STAND Awakening Conference.  I often describe Bishop E. W. Jackson as the “Energizer Bunny” of the awakening movement.  I’m glad I don’t have to keep his schedule.  He is now hosting a weekly radio show, has national conference calls a couple times each week and now is conducting a Conference[8] on 1-3 July here in Chesapeake, VA, that is chock full of good speakers.  I’ll see you there.

Principles of the Declaration.  For the next several  Friday mornings, 7-8 am EDT, we will be discussing the principles of the Declaration of Independence on my radio show: “We The People – The Constitution Matters.”  The topics for next week are the twin principles that government is formed for the simple and sole purpose of making unalienable rights secure, and that government obtains its just power to do so from the consent of the governed. You can listen live at  We’d love to entertain your questions or comments on the air (610-539-8255).


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The Constitution’s Week in Review – 4 June 2016

The Declaration of Independence

Everyone who has attended my seminar can tell you that there are four documents that have been declared by Congress to be the “Organic Laws of the United States.”  They include the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.  I remind my students: it is dangerous to try to interpret the Constitution separate from the philosophy of the Declaration (and the Supreme Court would agree).  But our children in public schools are not always taught the true meaning of the Declaration and how it came to be.  Even some adults have a skewed view of the document.

To try to correct our national ignorance, at least in her state, Louisiana House Republican Valarie Hodges introduced a proposal[1] to have the state’s public school kids recite some portion of the Declaration each day after they recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  Democrats in the legislature pounced on the idea, among them Democratic Rep. Barbara Norton.  She was quoted as saying: “One thing I do know is, all men are not created equal. When I think back in 1776, July the 4th, African-Americans were slaves, and for you to bring a bill to request that our children will recite the Declaration, I think is a little bit unfair to us to ask those children to recite something that’s not the truth.”

Now, I’ve never met Rep. Norton, nor do I know how/where she was educated.  But like many Americans, she has an incomplete view of American history.  One of the casualties in the Boston Massacre was one Crispus Attucks[2] a free black man who decided to stand up for his country instead of submit to British tyranny.  Blacks fought alongside whites[3] in the Continental Army, in state militias, and in the navy.  Yes, there were black slaves in most of the southern states.  Some were given their freedom in exchange for joining the army, but most remained enslaved.  As we know, that wrong was eventually righted.

Rep. Norton has obviously never stepped back and given much thought to Jefferson’s words, studied the complete history of the Revolutionary War, nor read Jefferson’s condemnation of the slave trade[4] that was deleted from the final draft of the Declaration.  Perhaps in Rep. Norton’s eyes we are not created equal, but in God’s eyes, we are, and Jefferson knew it.

Article 2:  Abuse of Executive Power

Organized Theft by the IRS

Be careful how and when you withdraw your own money from the bank; if you do something suspicious the IRS might just swoop down and take everything you have by claiming it is “drug money.”  This blatant theft is called civil asset forfeiture based on “structuring” your deposits[5] or withdrawals to avoid mandatory reporting of those over $10,000.  So if you like your privacy and don’t think the government has any business monitoring your use of it, think again.  Thanks to our wonderful Congress and their having passed the Bank Secrecy Act[6] in 1970, you can be fined or even jailed without having done anything wrong.

Article 3:  What’s up at the Supreme Court?

Here’s a nice summary[7] of the cases the Supreme Court is yet to issue rulings on this term.  It shouldn’t be much longer before we hear about some of them.

First Amendment

Sometimes we should look outside the U.S. for trends headed our way, and this is certainly one that should concern us.  Londoners are getting arrested for their social media posts.[8]  We’ve already seen the start of censorship of social media by Facebook and others; and that’s OK, those are privately owned forums and not subject to Constitutional constraints.  But arrests based on some government officials idea of what is “hateful” is another matter entirely.  Can’t happen here?  It easily could with the wrong people in charge of our government.  Stay alert.

Fourth Amendment

Sooner or later criminals will figure out that they shouldn’t carry GPs tracking devices — opps, I mean cell phones — during planned criminal activity.  The way courts are deciding[9] on police access to cell phone location data obtained from the phone companies, it doesn’t look good for the law breaker. Of course, the police would never ask for the location information on law-abiding citizens, would they?

Meanwhile in the States:

The saga continues in Alabama over whether State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore will be able to continue on the bench.  Based on his order for state judges to ignore the Obergefell v. Hodges opinion, Moore has been suspended while an investigation is conducted.  Rightfully miffed, Moore has sued the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission. It appears the JIC is operating within the Alabama State Constitution, so we’ll have to see how this sits with the federal court.

Upcoming Events:

Last Call for the Constitution Seminar in Williamsburg, VA.  Hampton Roads residents will have a final opportunity (at least this summer) to learn what their Constitution says and means by coming to a CLI Saturday Seminar on 11 June in Williamsburg, VA.  The seminar will be held from 9:00am-6:00pm at 133 Waller Mill Road, Williamsburg, Va.  Due to room size, this seminar is limited to 10 participants, but is not yet full.  Cost is $30 if registered by 7 June – $40 thereafter.  Pre-registration is required via email to:

Lessons in Liberty.  At the Foundation for American Christian Education, the Lessons in Liberty speaker for June will be Dr. Gai Ferdon, Professor at Liberty University.  Dr. Ferdon will speak on the topic of “The Welfare State: $20 Trillion Dollars Later.”  Asked to speak on this subject, Dr. Ferdon replied that it would be an impossible task to cover in a single night, thus this event will be a four-night seminar held at the Foundation in Chesapeake, VA, from 20-23 June, 7-9pm each night.  Participants may attend either in the FACE classroom or online via Livestream.  The cost for the four-day seminar is $35 instead of the normal $10 for a single presentation.  Register at

Besides their wonderful 90-Day Challenge,[10] Constituting America[11] sponsors an annual contest for young Americans (there’s a Seniors category as well) to create videos, Public Service Announcements and essays aimed at informing and exciting Americans about their Constitution.   Here’s a  wonderful video essay by a college student.

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The Constitution’s Week in Review – 23 Apr 2016

Article 2:  Faithfully Execute the Laws.

All eyes were on the Supreme Court on Monday as oral arguments were heard in the case of Texas v. U.S. over whether President Obama overstepped his authority in issuing instructions to defer deportation of a whole class of illegal immigrants, amounting to about 4.3 million persons.  To courtroom observers,[1] the Justices questions appeared to reveal a 4-4 split.  Such a decision will leave intact the injunction against the President’s action imposed by a District Court Judge and sustained by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The chickens have flown the coop, the horses have fled the barn, and Elvis has left the building, but apparently House Republicans think it is finally time to investigate the President’s flagrant abuses of the Constitution.[2]  Some will say: “Better late than never.”  Perhaps.  It will be an interesting summer in more ways than one.

First Amendment:  Establishment Clause.

The Tennessee legislature voted to designate[3] the Bible as the state’s “official book.”  The Governor vetoed the bill and the legislature failed to muster the votes to override the veto, even though the bill initially passed with an apparent veto-proof majority.  Was the Holy Bible being “demeaned” by such an act or merely being recognized for its impact in the formation of our republic and states?  Would declaring the Bible as the state’s official book “establish” Christianity as an official state religion?  Does the First Amendment prevent a state from declaring an official state religion? (Careful on this one!)  You decide.

Fourth Amendment: Illegal Search?

On Wednesday, 20 April, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments[4] in the case of Birchfield v. North Dakota. That case will determine whether a state can penalize a driver who asserts a Fourth Amendment constitutional right not to have his blood drawn or breath analyzed without his consent.

Is driving a car on a public road a right or a privilege?  The states of North Dakota and Minnesota think it is a privilege which entails forfeiting your 4th Amendment right against warrantless search and seizure.  Those states (and others) enacted laws making refusal of a breathalyzer or blood test a crime, allowing for immediate arrest. Those laws are now being challenged.

A 4-4 tie vote is likely in this case, leaving intact the lower court decision which upheld the constitutionality of the state laws.

Fifth Amendment:  A Government Land Grab?  You and your wife buy an attractive plot of land along the St. Croix River,[5] put a vacation cottage on it, and then buy an adjacent lot as an investment, hoping to sell or develop the second lot later.  The state then changes the rules on lot development making it impossible to develop the second lot, by either you or a future buyer.  The state has effectively “taken” your property by rendering your investment worthless, right?  You are due just compensation for this taking, right?  But then the state announces it will not recompense you for making the second lot nearly worthless because it considers both your lots as one, not two.  Folks, you can’t make this stuff up.  But this is what happens when you vote people into office who have no idea what is the purpose of government.  The Supreme Court has agreed to hear Murr V. State Of Wisconsin and St. Croix County.  Perhaps they will bring reason to the fore.

14th Amendment:  Coming to a School Near You.  Gloucester County, Virginia, school district has been ordered[6] by a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals panel (2-1) to allow a gender-confused female to use the boy’s bathroom at her school. The panel concluded that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex—should be interpreted as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity, as a Department of Education letter suggested in 2015.  The school board has asked the full 4th Circuit[7] to review the panel’s decision en banc (meaning by the full court).  I’ll keep you posted.  Seriously, if you think your local school district is somehow going to avoid this issue, you are mistaken.  It is coming and you better prepare to defend what you believe in.

Meanwhile, in the states:  I’ve discussed thie issue of secession several times in the past in some detail (re-posted here), so I won’t elaborate once again, but if the November election puts a Democrat in the White House, expect talk in Texas to get serious.[8]  Just saying.

Other states are putting in place some significant safeguards for individual freedom:

The Tennessee legislature blocked any attempt[9] by the federal government to attempt an end-run around the 2nd Amendment through international law or treaties.
Nebraska ended civil asset forfeiture[10] in that state.

The Illinois Senate voted unanimously[11] to prohibit police spying through use of “stingray” devices (AKA “cell site simulator”). The measure still has to pass the House, but this is pretty huge, in my book.

The Louisiana Senate voted to allow some raw milk sales[12] in the state.

Upcoming Events:

Lessons in Liberty.  On May 16th you can hear Dr. Jim Davids speak on “Choosing Godly Representatives” from 7-9pm at the Foundation for American Christian Education.  Attend in person or online.  Register at

Constitution Seminar in Norfolk, VA.   Hampton Roads residents can learn what their Constitution says and means by coming to a CLI Saturday Seminar on 21 May sponsored by Concerned Veterans for America.  The seminar will be held from 8:30am-5:30pm at the VFW Post 4809, 5728 Bartee St, Norfolk, VA 23502 (next to Military Circle Mall).  There is no charge for this event, but pre-registration is required through Eventbrite. Participants will receive a 150-page Student workbook, Pocket Constitution, and lunch.  There is no better deal around.  .  In an 1820 letter to William C. Jarvis, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The people themselves,… their discretion [informed] by education, [are] the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”  This class will equip you to identify and correct those abuses.

Constitution Seminar in Williamsburg, VA.  Hampton Roads residents will have a second opportunity to learn what their Constitution says and means by coming to a CLI Saturday Seminar on 11 June in Williamsburg, VA.  The seminar will be held from 9:00am-6:00pm at a location to be announced shortly.  Participants receive a 150-page Student workbook, Pocket Constitution, lunch and a chance to win valuable door prizes.  The seminar will cost $40 per person, but registrations prior to 7 June receive a $10 discount.  Due to venue size, this seminar is limited to 10 participantsPre-registration is required via email to

We’re halfway through the Constituting America 90-Day Challenge.  Hope you are enjoying this peak into American history.

The “Constitution’s Week in Review” is a project of the Constitution Leadership Initiative, Inc.  To unsubscribe from future mailings by Constitution Leadership Initiative, click here.














The Constitution’s Week in Review – 16 Apr 2016

Article 2. Natural Born Citizen Clause (to be continued until it is definitively settled).

As I reported last week, many of the challenges to Ted Cruz’ claim to be a natural-born citizen and thus eligible to assume the presidency have been dismissed by courts and election commissions on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing.  In the eyes of the court, this means the plaintiff could not prove he or she would be personally harmed should they lose the case.

A Washington, D.C. law professor found a way to remedy the problem of standing: he decided to run for President himself.  By filing suit as a co-contender for the office[1] rather than a “lowly” citizen, Victor Williams, who teaches law at Catholic University, hoped the court will agree that he would suffer “a direct and concrete injury if an unqualified candidate were to be allowed” to run.  He was right, but his victory was short-lived.  An administrative law judge in New Jersey, Judge Jeff Masin, heard arguments on Monday and on Tuesday announced[2] that Cruz is indeed a natural-born citizen under the U.S. Constitution and therefore can run in the June 7 New Jersey primary.

The Judge further agreed with what I’ve been saying all along on this issue: that the NBC question “can never be entirely free of doubt, at least barring a definitive ruling” by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Absolute certainty as to this issue is only available to those who actually sat in Philadelphia and themselves thought on the issue” Amen.  Stay tuned.

Article 3.  Replacing Scalia

By a vote of 92-0, the U.S. Senate confirmed Waverly D. Crenshaw Jr.[3] on Monday to be a U.S. district judge for the Middle District of Tennessee. Crenshaw is the sixth judicial nominee confirmed in 2016, bringing President Barack Obama’s total to 324, just two shy of the total number of confirmations during President George W. Bush’s entire eight-year term.  Who says the Senate is stonewalling?

First Amendment. 

I found this article[4] interesting: turns out the Bible is among the ten most challenged books in school libraries these days (holding down position #6), ostensibly for its depictions of “sex and violence,” charges that are obvious smokescreens for the real complaint: that it is a book of religious faith, which an increasing number of atheists find “offensive.”  I predict that those who wish to remove the Bible from all public view will eventually succeed.  Why?  Because they want their result more than those who revere the Bible want it to remain in the public eye.  The opportunity to speak up is slowly slipping away.

The backlash against attempts by some states which have taken steps to protect the religious faith of their citizens and their right to act in accordance with that faith has been nothing short of breathtaking.  Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina are now in the LGBT community’s cross-hairs over attempts to pass Religious Freedom Restoration bills and so-called “bathroom bills,” which attempt to keep gender-confused individuals from using a bathroom of preference.  “Offended” states have begun prohibiting their employees from traveling to those states in question, companies are promising to take their business elsewhere and, finally, rock stars are now cancelling concerts.[5]

Personally, I find the rock stars’ actions inconsequential, I have more important uses for my time than going to rock concerts, but I know that some of these performers enjoy large followings and thus their actions will undoubtedly have some effect.  Reaction from the Christian community which sought the bills in question? Crickets.

Second Amendment

In an ominous turn, a state judge has decided[6] that a lawsuit filed against Remington Arms, Corporation, the firm that made one of the weapons ostensibly used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, can proceed despite a 2005 federal law prohibiting such lawsuits.  The families pursuing the suit argued that an exemption feature of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act,[7] Section 4, Paragraph (5)(A) (ii), covers their suit.  This paragraph allows suits brought under charges that a gun manufacturer engaged in “negligent entrustment or negligence per se” in allowing the AR-15 weapon to be sold on the open market.   In her decision, Connecticut State Judge Barbara Bellis said the broad immunity granted by the 2005 law to the gun industry doesn’t mean this particular case can’t be heard in court.  I think the judge can be rightfully be criticized for wasting the court’s valuable time; the charge of “negligent entrustment” seems to me to be nearly impossible to prove.  But naturally, gun control advocates will grasp at any straw. The judge’s decision brought Congress’ 2005 law back into the spotlight, with Hillary Clinton supporters pointing to her promise to repeal the law if elected.[8]  I note that absent from Clinton’s promise was an explanation of how a President can unilaterally repeal a law of Congress.  If Clinton, however, were to be elected President and Democrats placed back in the majority in both Houses of Congress, it is likely the act will be repealed, and then the deluge of suits will force many gun manufacturers, perhaps all of them, out of business.  It is also likely that this unfortunate constellation will herald the end of freedom in America.

Fifth Amendment

When confronted by the police, when does your right to remain silent take effect?  According to this case reported in a Richmond newspaper,[9] the criteria is whether or not you are officially in custody.  Portsmouth, Virginia resident Wayne McClellan learned that the act of asking for an attorney or even saying you’d like to remain silent does not force police to end an interview.  Why? In the eyes of the police, McClellan was never in custody, he was not under arrest, he was free to leave at any time.  McClellan apparently didn’t see it that way and eventually confessed to the crime of murder.  In the 2013 case of Salinas v. Texas[10] the Supreme Court said that your right to remain silent must be verbally invoked.  If you simply remain silent without stating your reason for doing so, this act can be presented as evidence against you.

So in summary: If confronted by police, ask whether or not you are under arrest.  If not, insist on your right to leave or resume your travel.  If you are placed under arrest, verbally indicate you are asserting your 5th Amendment right to remain silent and then actually do so.  Also note that the Supreme Court decided in 2012 that Miranda warnings[11] are not required when a person is not in custody.  So don’t expect them until you’ve been placed under arrest.

Government waste:

The 2016 version of the Pig Book[12] is out.  Read and weep.

In a somewhat related announcement, it has been discovered at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that an employee, even an intern, can’t be fired for work-related misconduct without being first convicted of a crime.  Meanwhile, as the cited article points out, over at the Veterans Administration, they have decided that being tried and convicted of criminal activity does not disqualify you from continuing as an employee.  You can’t make this stuff up.

 Upcoming Events:

Constitution Seminar in Virginia Beach, VA.  Southside Hampton Roads residents can learn what their Constitution says and means by coming to a CLI Saturday Seminar on 21 May sponsored by Concerned Veterans for America.  There will be no charge for this event and participants will receive a 150-page Student workbook, free pocket Constitution, and lunch.  There is no better deal around.  Location: TBD.

The “Constitution’s Week in Review” is a project of the Constitution Leadership Initiative, Inc.  To unsubscribe from future mailings by Constitution Leadership Initiative, click here.













The Constitution’s Week in Review – 1 Apr 2016

In a startling announcement yesterday at the White House, President Barack Obama indicated he would step down from the office of President, effective  June 1, 2016.  Citing undisclosed “personal reasons,” the two-term President declared he and his family would re-locate to the Island of Maui and “kick back for awhile.”

Sources close to the President, who wished to remain anonymous, indicated that the growing controversy over Ted Cruz’ status as a Natural Born Citizen has renewed interest in whether the current President qualifies, leading some Congressmen to add this to a growing list of Articles of Impeachment.

In accordance with Article 2 of the Constitution, Vice-President Joe Biden will assume the office of President on that date and, in accordance with the 25th Amendment, is expected to nominate a replacement for the position of Vice President. (You started to believe it, right?)

Article 2. Natural Born Citizen Clause (to be continued until it is definitively settled).

Another week, another NBC suit.[1]  This time a New York appeals court upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a suit seeking to remove Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz from the state’s primary ballot due to his birth status.  Once again, there was no ruling on the merits of the case; the lower court dismissal was on a technicality (plaintiffs missed the deadline for filing their objection by nearly three weeks!).  The appeals court said: “Yep, shore enough missed it, by jimminy!” (or the legal equivalent).  Other suits remain pending in other states.
Article 3. Replacing Scalia

As more and more analysts find time to sift through each of Merrick Garland’s previous opinions, more conclusions come to the fore.  This one[2] concludes that “In Criminal Rulings, Garland Has Usually Sided With Law Enforcement.”  That should all make us sleep better at night.

Shortly after the death of Justice Scalia, I discussed the potential impact of his vacancy, including the potential for 4-4 tie votes.  Well, it happened this week.[3]  We can be nearly certain that Scalia would have provided the fifth vote necessary to overturn the appeals court ruling that California teachers must still pay fees to their union even when those funds are then used to support candidates and political issues with which some teachers disagree.[4]

A 4-4 tie leaves intact the lower court decision and establishes no precedent for the rest of the country.  Chief Justice Roberts could have delayed the opinion until such time as Scalia’s seat is filled and had the case re-argued, but decided against that for some reason.

Meanwhile in the States:

Fifth Amendment.  “Progress” trundles on.  What city, including North Saint Louis,[5] wouldn’t like to improve its appearance and increase its tax revenue?  The opportunity for federal dollars makes the idea even more alluring.  Too bad some homeowners have the misfortune of living in the way of that “progress.”

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is apparently thinking of moving it headquarters, and North St. Louis wants to make them a deal it can’t refuse.  Since no decision has been made to actually move the headquarters, the city’s eminent domain action seems a bit pre-mature.  And then there’s the issue of low-balling the value of the homes.  Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London, cities require very little justification for the taking of private property.

Eighth Amendment.  The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits excessive bail (among other protections). What’s excessive?  There have been many, many court decisions[6] over what is excessive, but each case brings particular circumstances.  Two Texas mothers driving through Louisiana had the misfortune of being charged with a crime they say they didn’t commit: eating two hot dogs, milkshakes and an icee at a convenience store without paying.  They were certain surveillance video would clear them but the officer who arrested them didn’t want to take the time to investigate, so he took them into custody.  When they couldn’t initially make bail (relatives were 400 miles away) the women had to spent five days in jail instead.  Reading this account one wonders what happened to common sense in this country.

Upcoming Events.

Constitution Seminar for Youth – 9 April.  Don’t you want your kids (or grandkids) to understand their Constitution better?  Here’s an opportunity.  On 9 April I’ll teach from  Juliette Turner’s “Our Constitution Rocks” at the Foundation for American Christian Education classroom in Chesapeake, VA.  There is a nominal $5 charge for students and parents are encouraged to attend as well.  Register through email to

Constitution Seminar – 16 April.  On Saturday, 16 April, I will be teaching the Constitution at Pottstown, PA, co-sponsored by WFYL Radio.  Valley Forge, PA was CLI’s inaugural 1-day seminar, the success of which led me to adopt the format as my standard.  $30 per person until 13 April then tuition goes to $40.  If you live in the Philadelphia area, please come join us.  Register for this event via email:

Constitution Seminar – 21 May.  Southside Hampton Roads residents can learn what their Constitution says and means by coming to a CLI Saturday Seminar on 21 May sponsored by Concerned Veterans for America.  There will be no charge for this event and participants will receive a 150-page Student workbook, free pocket Constitution, and lunch.  There is no better deal around.  Location TBD.

The “Constitution’s Week in Review” is a project of the Constitution Leadership Initiative, Inc.  To unsubscribe from future mailings by Constitution Leadership Initiative, click here.




[4] The teachers can opt out from paying these fees but must re-initiate the opt-out each year.