For people who study constitutional law for a living, or for casual fans, arguing about how the Founding Fathers interpreted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is a favorite pastime. When Supreme Court justices are nominated, the first way they are usually described by is how they interpret the Constitution. Most observers would say that the Bill of Rights is one of the most important and far reaching documents in history and it is exciting to realize that even though the document was written a long time ago, court rulings and laws are constantly changing and altering the way those rights are interpreted and defined. Let’s take a look at some of the best known parts of the Bill of Rights and see how they are still being interpreted today.
It may come as a surprise to some, but there were prominent people arguing against the creation of the Bill of Rights as it was being crafted. Arguments usually centered around the idea that having a Bill of Rights inherently limits one’s rights because then the government can restrict any rights not listed on the document itself. A compromise on this topic was reached with the inclusion of the Ninth Amendment which clearly states that the government does not have the right to limit rights that are not clearly spelled out in other parts of the document. Since the Founding Fathers could not possibly have imagined the technology and lifestyles people would be living 200 years into the future, the inclusion of the Ninth Amendment showed remarkable vision.
Perhaps no amendment is sited and talked about more than the First Amendment. In one fell swoop, the Founding Fathers covered everything from religious freedom to freedom of speech to freedom of the press. It has taken law experts generations to adequately sift through the thousands of ways that this amendment alone impacts our daily lives and courts from California to Maine still debate this very topic on a daily basis. One part of the first amendment that is so often misinterpreted is the part about religion. Many people don’t realize that there are two distinct parts of the First Amendment that speak about religion. First, the amendment forbids the establishment of an official religion in the United States. The wording here is very clear but it hasn’t stopped many religious leaders from petitioning the government to declare the United States a “Christian” nation. The second part also forbids the federal government from passing any laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion. With one brilliant sentence, the government has given full rights to those that do not wish to be affiliated with one official religion and given the right to others to practice their religion as they see fit, assuming it doesn’t violate anyone else’s human rights. While other parts of the First Amendment are frequently discussed and dissected, the two sections regarding religion are often the most controversial and will likely continue to be into the future.