Our Opinion: Understanding foundations of government

Can you name the three branches of government spelled out in the U.S. Constitution?

If so, you're in a select group. A new survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows only about a quarter of Americans (26 percent) can.

More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) can't name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

We give our readers more credit than that. We're a college town with a high percentage of educated residents. Not to be patronizing, but logic would dictate newspaper readers are even more educated and knowledgeable about the world around them, including our system of government.

Still, the survey results led us to wonder how many local residents have read the U.S. Constitution or the Missouri Constitution.

This Sunday is Constitution Day. It's celebrated every Sept. 17 - the day in 1787 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the document in Philadelphia. We thought that would make a good opportunity to give you a few reasons to read this document, along with the Missouri Constitution:

The U.S. Constitution asserts itself as the "supreme Law of the land." - Article 6, Clause 2. It's the foundation for the way our country operates. If you care about that - and you should - this is where your knowledge should start. Likewise, the Missouri Constitution spell out the basics of how our state and city operate.

If you want to affect change on the city, state or national level, it's imperative to understand the ground rules. These documents spell them out. (Granted, lawyers will always argue various the meaning of the words and courts will continue to interpret those meanings.)

It will give you a basis for understanding current events. Headlines ranging from search and seizure to wiretapping have constitutional roots. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Columbia church and its ability to receive a state grant for shredded tires for its playground. Arguments stemmed from the separation of church and state, outlined by the U.S. Constitution.

If you don't think these documents affect your daily lives, think again. They deeply affect how we live, the rights we are granted and the responsibilities we have.

Understanding these documents is the first step to protecting your rights. We've been fortunate that, for the most part, we've been able to take our rights for granted. But we shouldn't.

As times and values change, so have the U.S. Constitution and Missouri Constitution. If we want to protect our rights and preserve our liberty, we can't stand by and assume that other like-minded people will stand watch. That's not a good strategy, as any historian will attest.

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