Three hundred and twenty-five years ago, our forefathers codified the laws of their new country in a constitution drafted to protect the most precious of human rights. As victims of religious persecution, these drafters contemplated a world where they would be free from discrimination, aiming to create a society that would protect its citizens from the ills they had suffered in the past, and to protect a man’s right to life, liberty and property.
Since its creation, the Supreme Court has had an instrumental role in interpreting the Constitution. Specifically, the Court has been responsible for interpreting the word liberty, grounding their interpretation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment in the morals, traditions, history, and intent of our Founding Fathers.
But are these constitutional rights fundamental to our existence as civilized human beings, or rather, are they a reaction to the specific type of persecution suffered under the English monarchy? I can’t help but wonder what our Bill of Rights would have looked like had our revolution been rooted in a reaction to economic rather than religious persecution. Even more, I wonder how the Supreme Court would interpret the Constitution if our values included ending poverty.
One example is San Antonio v. Rodriguez, a 1973 decision where the Supreme Court refused to strike down a property tax scheme that discriminated against poor children and denied them equal access to education. This is a decision where the Court not only ruled that discrimination against the poor was constitutional, but also held that education was not a fundamental right. In ruling against paternalism and redistribution, the Court sacrificed millions of this nation’s children, telling them that they deserve nothing more than underfunded schools that provide inadequate education with depressingly low college attendance rates and shockingly high drop-out rates. How different would our society be if we valued equality and social good as much as we value our own individual rights?
Another place where these ideologies clash today is immigration. Our nation is currently experiencing an influx of immigrants who have come here to escape economic persecution in their home countries. But rather than welcome them with compassion for the human struggle and understand the sacrifice it takes to escape persecution in one’s own country, we treat them with hostility and disdain. We distinguish ourselves from them because our persecution was civil and political, whereas theirs is social and economic. Thus, they do not have the right to escape to “the country of immigrants,” since we don’t regard that type of suffering as meritorious of the “persecution” nomenclature. They are not immigrants like our forefathers, but rather, criminals invading our private property who deserve to be exploited here, and corralled like animals for deportation.
Some have tried to argue that the Constitution does in fact support social and economic rights, blaming the Supreme Court for interpreting it in the manner that it’s now understood. However, this is unconvincing considering our country was founded on slavery, ethnic cleansing, colonialist wars, racism, discrimination against women, and the exploitation of labor.
Those who limit society’s values to the antiquated ideologies of dead, slave-owning men, must be willing to accept the consequences: a caste-based society with an unskilled and uneducated underclass consisting of poor citizens and immigrants. But for the rest of us who believe in true evolution and progression of civilized human beings, we need to look past the limits of the Constitution and Supreme Court jurisprudence. We should recognize that positive change in society has consistently resulted from collective organization through mass protests, conscientious dissent, and civil unrest. As historian, social-activist, and scholar Howard Zinn puts it, “[t]he Constitution, like the Bible, has some good words. It is also, like the Bible, easily manipulated, distorted, ignored and used to make us feel comfortable and protected. But we risk the loss of our lives and liberties if we depend on a mere document to defend them. A constitution is a fine adornment for a democratic society, but it’s no substitute for the energy, boldness and concerted action of the citizens.”