"Is a bill of rights essential to liberty?" asked founding father James Madison in the debate over ratifying the Constitution of the United States of America.
The question arose as part of the on-going discussion of the nature of democracy, carried on in ancient Greece, continued through the centuries, and central to the foundation of our government. The absence of a bill of rights almost squelched the proposed Constitution, which was ratified in 1787.
The question of rights persisted as the new system of government became operational, and within a few years the Bill of Rights became law via amendments to the Constitution. Whereas the Constitution reserves or delegates powers within government, these ten amendments limit the powers of government and define rights of people.
The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
By adoption in 1791, this and the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights became part of the Constitution, the supreme law of the land.
Both national and state constitutions recognize the importance of freedoms and rights of individuals in a democratic republic. A federal system of government divides sovereignty between national and state, and aboriginal, governments; and, it limits, delegates, and disperses powers among branches as well as levels of government. But people, not government, provide the popular basis of political authority in a democracy.
The First Amendment, for example, specifies some of the key freedoms that enable people to participate in a democracy - in a political system of, by, and for the people.
The Amendment also covers many topics relevant to life today, including separation of church and state, libel, invasion of privacy, confidential news sources, prior restraints, gag orders, freedom of information, copyright, right of assembly, and the right to petition the government.
Several organizations are devoted to protecting rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Founded in 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization devoted to defending and preserving individual rights and liberties - to defending everybody. Montana's Civil Liberties Union is affiliated with the national organization.
Founded in 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to protecting and advancing the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit founded in 1971, supports civil rights and combats hate, intolerance and discrimination through education and litigation.
Some organizations exist to protect a specific right; for example, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press is dedicated to providing free legal assistance to journalists in support of a First Amendment right.
The founding fathers of our republic specified in writing the rights and freedoms contained in each of the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. They did so at a time that, according to Benjamin Franklin, "about one citizen in five hundred, who, by education or practice in scribbling, has acquired a tolerable style as to grammar and construction, so as to bear printing."
They not only printed these rights and freedoms, they incorporated them into the supreme law of the land - the Constitution, a document, in its own words, intended to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."
We inherited these rights and freedoms, all of them. Will we continue to secure them for future generations?
I hope so! But that requires the support of voters in election after election. Please plan to vote in your local elections as well as in Primary and General Elections.