December 15, 2006

Happy Bill of Rights Day!

The United States Bill of Rights became law December 15, 1791:

The Bill of Rights includes rights such as freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly. It also includes a clause assuring the American people that the bill of rights should not be interpreted as a comprehensive list of all rights belonging to Americans, but rather a list of the most important rights.

After the Constitution was ratified, the first Congress met in Federal Hall in New York City. Most of the delegates agreed that a Bill of Rights was needed and most of them believed that the same rights should be enumerated.

The task of drafting the Bill of Rights fell to James Madison, who based his work on George Mason's earlier work, Virginia Declaration of Rights. It had been decided earlier that the Bill of Rights would be added to the Constitution as amendments (the list of rights was not included in the text of the Constitution because it was feared that changing the document's text would necessitate the rather painful process of re-ratifying the Constitution).

On November 20, 1789, New Jersey became the first state in the newly-formed Union to ratify these amendments. Other states followed, and the ten amendments that were made law on December 15, 1791 soon became known as the Bill of Rights.

Its value, in Madison's view, was in part educational, in part as a vehicle that might be used to rally people against a future oppressive government, and finally -- in an argument borrowed from Thomas Jefferson -- Madison argued that a declaration of rights would help install the judiciary as "guardians" of individual rights against the other branches.

Exactly 217 years after becoming the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights, New Jersey took another small but important step toward guaranteeing full citizenship to all its citizens:
New Jersey became the third state to bless civil unions as an alternative to marriage for same-sex couples, choosing a middle ground that establishes a type of relationship that didn’t exist before Vermont created it in 2000.

The authors of the New Jersey measure said they intend for civil unions to be identical to marriage in all but name. The legislation spells out specific benefits to be extended, such as full adoption rights and the right to change surnames without a court petition. It also updates state marriage statutes by painstakingly adding the phrase "or civil union" after every mention of "marriage" in more than 80 pages of rules governing nuptials.

Currently, partnership rights for same-sex couples differ widely in the seven states that recognize some form of gay unions. Besides marriage licenses in Massachusetts and civil unions in Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont, domestic partnership registries have been created in three states: California, Hawaii and Maine.

Domestic partnerships differ from civil unions in that they confer a specific list of benefits to registered couples who may be of the same-sex or opposite sex. For example, Maine and Hawaii list specific legal rights for domestic partners such as inheritance and hospital visitations. California's domestic partnership law is similar to civil unions in that it extends all state-level rights and responsibilities to registered domestic partners.

"The Declaration of rights is like all other human blessings alloyed with some inconveniences... But the good in this instance vastly outweighs the evil."

"If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can."

--Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, dated March 15, 1789

"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

--Amendment IX

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