Amid the turmoil over taking down Confederate monuments and others ranging from Christopher Columbus to Theodore Roosevelt, here’s an idea that that almost everyone can get behind: How about erecting monuments that celebrate the Bill of Rights?
Yes, the Bill of Rights: 10 amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791, that spelled out the individual freedoms Americans have enjoyed ever since — including the freedom to protest against things like monuments (thanks to the First Amendment.)
A campaign to place Bill of Rights monuments in state capitols in all 50 states is already underway, albeit moving slowly. Arizona’s Bill of Rights monument was built in Phoenix in 2012, and plans for an OkIahoma monument in Oklahoma City are progressing. A smaller scale monument can be found in Montezuma, Iowa.
It’s the brainchild of Chris Bliss, a comic by trade who has made the Bill of Rights his side project. Comics, after all, benefit greatly from the First Amendment. His campaign began nearly two decades ago, when there was controversy over monuments that celebrated the Ten Commandments, also often placed in state capitols.
Bliss envisioned erecting Bill of Rights monuments as a way to "comparison shop" with the Ten Commandments, he says whimsically. He also wants the monuments built near state capitols because "every kid goes to state capitols" on school field trips. He estimates that 40,000 students a year have visited the Arizona monument.
As he delved into the project, Bliss found that the Bill of Rights was something of a forgotten document, rarely taught in schools. People knew about a patient’s bill of rights or a bill of rights for airline passengers. But it was hard for people to grasp the abstract principles of the constitutional Bill of Rights, Bliss says, and therefore hard to turn those principles into marble or limestone.
Donations and support for Bliss’ Bill of Rights project have been sporadic over the years, with comedians like Lewis Black and the late Dick Gregory helping out. The Bill of Rights has "no preexisting constituency," Bliss says, unlike other organized groups that can lobby successfully for building monuments.
But in the aftermath of the recent protests nationwide that involve monuments and civil liberties, he hopes to jump-start his project and hasten the building of Bill of Rights monuments nationwide. "This is a very positive moment," Bliss says.
Amendments a safeguard for citizens
The relevance of the Bill of Rights to today’s divisions is clear and deserves recognition. The Bill of Rights fosters freedom of expression, religion, due process, fair trials, protection against unreasonable government intrusion or excessive fines, among other important rights.
The 10 amendments are not without controversy. Interpreting the religion clauses of the First Amendment, the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment, and the "cruel and unusual punishment" clause of the Eighth Amendment has been a contentious task for centuries.
And there are parts of the Bill of Rights that are quirky, to say the least. The Third Amendment, for example, prohibits soldiers from being quartered in homes without the consent of owners. It was a big issue at the time of the founding, but not now.
Opportunity to celebrate liberty
Bliss says there is no better remedy for monument controversies than to commemorate the Bill of Rights, which he calls "the most powerful and successful assertion of individual rights and liberties ever written."
He adds, "The ideas were radical at the time, but now, people say, ‘Of course.’ There is not an exclusionary phrase in the entire document. It is time for us to rediscover our own Bill of Rights and to elevate it to the position of public prominence it richly deserves."
Tony Mauro, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, covered the Supreme Court for USA TODAY from 1982 to 2000.