A Constitution Just For Kids

Fans leave flowers outside of McNair's restaurant in Nashville. McNair was renowned for his community service efforts. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

For students stumped by "ex post facto" and put off by "thereofs" and "hereins," a congressional staffer has translated the Constitution into modern, plain language.

Cathy Travis, who has worked on Capitol Hill for two decades, took on the delicate task of rephrasing the hallowed document, whose meaning still is debated and reinterpreted by Congress and the courts.

The Constitution's wording is mostly the handiwork of a colonial New York aristocrat who tried to avoid legalisms and set down in simple terms the will of the Constitutional Convention. The simplicity of 1787 can be hard going today.

Article 1, Section 9: "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed."

Travis' translation: "Congress cannot pass a law to declare someone guilty of a crime. Criminal laws passed by Congress can be applied only from the time they are passed."

Gouverneur Morris, who did most of the drafting, had argued in the Constitutional Convention for a president who would serve for life, would appoint senators for life and was elected only by men who owned land for life. He bowed to the will of the majority, however, and compressed the 23 articles assembled by the "Committee on Detail" into the seven articles of the Constitution

He wrote the "We the People" preamble, and he sharply edited much of the rest.

"The biggest misconception about the Constitution is that it's very long — it's an itty-bitty thing, only 4,400 words," said Travis, press secretary to Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas.

Her 85-page "Constitution Translated for Kids" includes a glossary and some history and puts the translation and original side by side.

For example, the First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Travis translates that as "Congress cannot make any law to create a government church, to keep people from practicing any religion they please (or not)."

Travis is preparing an edition of her translation for adults, who may be a bit puzzled, too.

They may not know, for example, that "establishment of religion" refers to Britain's still-existing "established church," with king or queen at its head, clergy paid by the government and 24 bishops sitting as members of the House of Lords. The amendment was written to make it plain that the new republic wanted nothing like that.

Ira C. Lupu, professor of law at George Washington University, said the translation should be useful for schools but doesn't tell the whole story.

"Something is always lost in translation," he said.

The setting up of a state church is only part of the question, he pointed out, noting disputes that are still unsettled about prayer in public schools and the use of public money for schools run by churches. Courts have yet to decide to what extent some of the recent "faith-based initiatives" from the Bush White House may or may not conform to the "establishment clause."

Lupu also questioned the translation's version of the much-disputed Second Amendment, which includes the phrase "citizens have the right to own firearms."

"A lot of people believe the amendment was intended only to protect the rights of states to maintain militias and not to guarantee a right to ordinary citizens," he said.
  • Melissa Cheung

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