In the past week, a number of unsung holidays have come and gone with little recognition. International Talk Like a Pirate Day on Wednesday had only a minor outpouring of support on Facebook, and while a number of students made pilgrimages to Shively and indulged in burgers on Tuesday, they probably didn’t even realize it was National Cheeseburger Day. That’s what made the near full-house accompaning Richard Garnett’s Constitution Week speech in Scripps 111 on Sept. 19 so remarkable.
Robert Ingram, director of the George Washington Forum, which organized the event, said any college that accepts loan money from the federal government is required to have at least one special event during Constitution Week, which runs from Sept. 16 to Sept. 22.
Although the speech was delayed from the “official” Constitution Day—the 225th anniversary of the Constitution’s signing is on Sept. 17—to Wednesday, it nevertheless proved to be a success. Ingram and the GWF decided to focus the speech on the First Amendment’s provision for religious liberty, an aspect of the Constitution which, Ingram said, isn’t properly understood by most Ohio University students.
“One of the things that struck me talking to students around campus is that the way they talk about religious freedom is sort of incoherent,” Ingram said. “So I thought, let’s get someone who’s thought about this at the level of the Supreme Court… (to) teach about it.”
Ingram’s selection of speaker was Richard Garnett, an associate dean for faculty research and professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. Although Garnett is a professed Catholic, he was chosen for his ability to reach across the entire spectrum of beliefs with his message, Ingram explained.
“He’s the kind of person who can speak across confessional lines,” Ingram said.
Garnett’s speech discussed how the concept of freedom of religion has slowly morphed into freedom “from” religion as the idea of religion has attracted scorn in recent years. Garnett said he instead sees freedom of religion as provided in the Constitution as freedom “for” religion, allowing religion and politics to operate within entirely separate spheres. As a Christian, Garnett said he has no problem with dividing religion from politics, quoting Pope Benedict XVI in praising America’s “healthy secularism.”
“It’s really with Christianity where you get this distinction between political and religious authority,” Garnett said.
In his speech, Garnett said that analyzing not only the First Amendment, but also the Constitution, is an important part of keeping the document fresh and alive in a modern context.
“The Constitution is a great achievement… but it’s just a piece of paper unless we flesh it out with opinions and questions,” Garnett said.
As the Constitution turns 225, Garnett emphasized that “it’s important to be able to celebrate and appreciate the incredible achievement that is our Constitution” but that people should also recognize that the Constitution “was flawed in some very serious ways at the outset.”
In spite of this, Garnett added that our Constitution has proved surprisingly stable and has proven its longevity.
“Constitutions come and go around the world, but ours has basically endured,” Garnett said. “It’s changed, it’s been amended, but it’s endured. And that itself, I think, is a real achievement.”