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Sunday, August 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Need to celebrate Constitution Day called to question

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — For Louise Leigh, 91, a retired medical technologist, Sept. 16 will be a dream come true.

It will be the first federally recognized Constitution Day, a national celebration of the U.S. government's founding document. It is just what she has sought since she founded a nonprofit organization, Constitution Day, in 1997.

But as the big day approaches, the schoolteachers and federal bureaucrats who will be required to spread constitutional knowledge are confused about what to do — if, that is, they've heard of Constitution Day at all.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., wrote the new holiday into the budget for the Education Department last December. He routinely carries a pocket-size copy of the Constitution and has brought it out during speeches on the Senate floor.

The law creating a federal Constitution Day requires all schools receiving federal funds and all federal agencies to provide materials about the Constitution on Sept. 17, the document's "birthday." This year, because that day is a Saturday, events are planned for the previous day.

The legislation did not give the Education Department any enforcement power, so the law's stern-sounding language is not really a requirement, according to Byrd's office.

There are questions about whether a national requirement to celebrate the document was appropriate. One hang-up for some big fans of the Constitution is their belief that the federal government is mandating an educational curriculum, something not permitted by the Constitution.

"There's irony in using an unconstitutional measure to promote Constitution Day," said Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

Deborah Rigsby, director of federal legislation for the National School Boards Association, said the Constitution, while important, "is taught already. I can't say we opposed [the new law], but there may be some views that we already teach the Constitution as part of history, social studies, political science — and we don't need another federal mandate."

Federal-agency preparations also appeared haphazard. The agency responsible for federal staffing, the Office of Personnel Management, has a Web page about the Constitution, reminding staffers of their oath to uphold and protect the document, "so help me God."

Though spokespeople at several agencies had never heard of Constitution Day, Linda Formella at the Export-Import Bank said her agency planned to send all staff an e-mail reminding them of the oath and directing them to the Constitution Day Web site at the National Archives.

The Archives will celebrate by showing a film, produced by PBS, on the recent restoration of the original Constitution.

The Cato Institute, which opposes the mandatory Constitution Day, is having a celebration of its own: its annual Constitution Day conference to dissect recent Supreme Court decisions.

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