Ready or Not, Constitution Day Is Near

Times Staff Writers

For Louise Leigh, a retired medical technologist from El Monte, Sept. 16 will be a dream come true.

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

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


Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) wrote the new holiday into the budget for the Education Department in December. He routinely carries a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution, which he has been known to bring out during speeches on the Senate floor.

The law creating a federal Constitution Day requires all schools receiving federal funds, as well as all federal agencies, to provide materials about the Constitution on Sept. 17, commemorating the date in 1787 when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the nation’s charter. This year, because that date is a Saturday, events are planned for the day before.

One celebration will take place in Buena Park, at the Knott’s Berry Farm replica of Independence Hall. The Constitution was drafted, debated and adopted at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Since 1997, Leigh, who is 91 and a longtime Republican Party activist, has organized Constitution Day events at Knott’s Berry Farm. This year her program calls for a simultaneous recitation of the preamble to the Constitution at sites around the world, led by retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks.

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

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


Because of that longtime interest, she has been ahead of the game in preparing for the new date on the federal calendar.

California state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell is still preparing information for school districts about how to incorporate a Constitution lesson into courses at all levels. Those recommendations will be sent out in the next two weeks, spokeswoman Hilary McLean said.

Private schools and colleges are scrambling to prepare course plans as well.

At the Los Angeles, South Gate and San Bernardino campuses of Career College of America, students will find posters plastered across campus depicting the signatures on the Constitution, said Joanne Brennan, financial aid director for the vocational school’s South Gate campus. She said she had spent about four hours one day this week surfing the Web for information on what, exactly, was required of educational institutions.

“One website said the rules aren’t really rules,” she said. “This being the first year, nobody really knows what to do.”

She ended up ordering 1,000 soft-cover copies of the Constitution to distribute.

The website was right, according to Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.

“We’re confident they will comply,” she said. “We don’t expect any enforcement issues.”

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

Complying will be particularly difficult at the University of California, where only two of the 10 campuses will be in session. The rest are on the quarter system, and classes will not resume until later in the month.

Classes at UCLA, for example, do not begin until Sept. 29. But for Constitution Day, University spokesman Phil Hampton said, the school “will prominently post a link on several websites, including its main website.”

At UC Riverside, another campus on the quarter system, spokeswoman Marcia McQuern said the university would send an e-mail from top administrators to familiarize students and faculty members with Constitution Day.

At UC Berkeley, where classes resume next week, Boalt Hall Law School professor Goodwin Liu is assembling, at the request of university administrators, a panel of several scholars and a federal district court judge to speak.

But like some others who appreciate the Constitution, he questioned whether a national requirement to celebrate the document was appropriate.

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

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

Deborah Rigsby, director of federal legislation for the National School Boards Assn., said the Constitution was “taught already.”

“I can’t say we opposed [the new law], but there may be some views that we already teach the Constitution as part of history, social studies, political science -- and we don’t need another federal mandate,” she said.

Some federal agency preparations appeared lax.

The agency responsible for federal staffing, the Office of Personnel Management, has a Web page about the Constitution, reminding staffers that they take an oath to uphold and protect the document, “so help me God.” Some civil libertarians say those words, adopted in 1884, themselves violate the 1st Amendment.

Though spokesmen at several agencies had never heard of Constitution Day, Linda Formella at the U.S. Export-Import Bank said her agency planned to send all staffers an e-mail reminding them of the oath and directing them to the Constitution Day site at the National Archives Web page.

The Archives will celebrate next month by showing a film, produced by PBS, on the recent restoration of the original Constitution.