Our Bill of Rights
“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