logo Click BACK to return to basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

The Team

Meet Team

Team Archive



All Aboard as the US Trekkers guide you through the tour!

In our collective opinion, American Constitutional law is one of the most fascinating and controversial elements of our modern society, and is a fundamental reason why everyone should be encouraged to learn and think and develop their own opinions on how we all get to live. So, on this tour, we're going to briefly introduce you to some of the most important Constitutional themes that have been debated throughout this country's history. This is not meant to be a thoroughly detailed lesson, but rather as a brief overview of some key concepts and as a beginning to your thoughtful journey to find your own values. Just promise us you'll think about this stuff, because if you take a moment to contemplate the ideas presented here, we're pretty sure you'll even find it interesting. So sit back, fasten your seatbelts, and turn on those brains!

First Stop: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1787

The Constitution was written and signed in the summer of 1787 by a convention of 55 delegates who met in Philadelphia. These authorities were especially concerned with limiting the power of the central government and protecting the security of the country's citizens, thus framing the Constitution to institute several policies that would create an appropriate balance between authority and personal freedom. These policies included the separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, the checks and balances of each against the others, and clear guarantees of individual liberty. The rights were definitely carefully thought-out, so carefully in fact that hardly any of the text that was written over 200 years ago has been changed to this day. The American Constitution is undoubtedly one of the most powerful documents that exists in our country, and defines much of the way we go about our daily lives here in the US. But it is not perfect. It is not always accurate for the 21st century and therefore it demands a governmental system that can appropriately deal with its contents. So that's what the judicial courts are for. And that's why American citizens can question their rights by taking their issues to court.

One of the most important court cases in American history then, was that of Marbury vs. Madison in 1803 in which Chief Justice John Marshall formulated a doctrine of judicial review stating that the Constitution implicitly grants power to the Supreme Court to declare invalid any law that, in the Court's opinion, violates the Constitution. With this decision, one of the most important precedents for interpreting the Constitution was set. Judicial review can be thought of in this way: Because the people who framed the Constitution are no longer living, sometimes it's rather difficult to know exactly what they had in mind when they wrote certain words, and sometimes it turns out that the rights they insisted upon are no longer relevant for our modern world. To this day, the Courts see their judicial review power as one of their most sacred powers, and it continues to be a primary catalyst in expanding individual rights of American citizens.

Stop Two: East Louisiana

On June 7, 1892, an African-American shoemaker named Homer Plessy was arrested for riding in the "White" car of the East Louisiana Railroad. Though Plessy was only one-eighth black and seven-eighth white, Louisiana law stated that any technical percentage of black heritage required him to sit in the "Colored" car.

Segregation, the legal separation of blacks and whites, is one of the most embittered issues that this country has had to face. Each of you is far too young to remember a time when this country instituted legal segregation, and may even find it hard to imagine that such a free country could institute such a policy. However, with the ruling that decided the Plessy vs. Ferguson case in 1896 requiring that railroads offer "separate but equal" accommodations for black and white passengers, separation was the law. Just having come out of the Civil War and shortly after Abraham Lincoln had declared all slaves to be free with his "Emancipation Proclamation," this was seen as a step forward in the African-American fight for equality. Does that seem fair to you? Who has the right to outlaw certain people to ride certain trains just because of the color of their skin? Furthermore, it wouldn't be for another 60 years that this law was revoked! Thankfully in 1954, famed lawyer Thurgood Marshall argued in the "Brown vs. Board of Education" case that it was unconstitutional to forbid 9-year-old Linda Brown of Topeka, Kansas from attending an all-white school. The judge ruled that "separate but equal" be overturned and that segregation be banned.

Stop Three: Your Classroom

Your teacher starts class each day by reciting a passage from the Bible and requiring that students bow their heads in prayer. Wait a second! That doesn't happen, does it? Most likely, it doesn't happen, and that's because the American Constitution declares that in our country, there should be a clear separation between Church and State, that is to say, between religion and government.

School-sponsored prayer is prohibited because to require students to recite prayers in class is in violation of this Constitutional law. Because many people have incredibly strong religious beliefs, this concept becomes hazy sometimes as objective flexibility towards other people's religious beliefs gets lost, and the term public school prayer gets harder to define. Indeed, public school prayer is a controversy that still exists today. And, to make matters more confused, all of the recent school shooting tragedies have made those that see prayer as a healthy and effective means against violence become even more insistent that prayer be incorporated into school routine. What do you think?

Check out the news article reporting a Supreme Court decision from last year regarding school prayer at football games.

Stop Four: Washington, DC

For the final stop on this world wind tour, we find ourselves in the midst of a protest at the Capitol among a group of people who feel that abortion should be outlawed. Probably one of the most heated controversies of our contemporary society, the abortion issue is indeed a complicated one (and remains a central issue in the Presidential elections of next month) and deeply intertwined with each American citizen's Right of Privacy:

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The abortion controversy is such a difficult one because it deals with something that is so inherently personal, that it's hard for many people to see why the government should play a role at all in deciding whether a medical procedure of this nature should be available. At the same time though, many believe that since it does deal with life and death, allowing women to stop babies from being born is fundamentally unethical. Should the government decide whether women should be able to have safe and legal abortions, if they choose not to want the unborn child that is growing inside of them? Does it make sense that such a sensitive issue could be decided in a court of law? One of the most famous court rulings in US history, came in 1973 when the Court announced its decision to legalize abortion to conclude the case of Roe v. Wade. American women have had the opportunity to go to a hospital and have a legal and safe abortion should they decide to do so, yet since it is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, the ruling can and may very well be again overturned. On this and all of the above matters, the importance of forming your own opinions becomes clear: We all have to do our part to stand up for what we believe in, and fight for the values that make living in this country the most important right of all.

Tour Wrap Up:

Thanks for riding the Constitutional Controversies World Wind Tour Bus. We hope we've held your interest during this brief introduction to just a few of the ethical issues that have commanded great debates over the course of this country's history. We also hope that you'll take with you mental souvenirs of the trip, and give some thought to this nation's process of interpreting the Constitution to find solutions to these and other ethical dilemmas.

See you next time!

The Team


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - Rebels on a Roll!
Becky - When politicians wore guns...
Daphne - Now, just exactly what were the Founding Fathers upset about?
Making A Difference - One nation under…corporate control?
Teddy - President for Life and other Constitutional Convention bloopers...
Kevin - Democracy: use it or lose it!