Religious conservatives are pushing an obscure legal maneuver to rewrite the U.S. Constitution to better reflect their views, a secular watchdog group warned Wednesday.
The Constitution has been revised throughout the nation’s history by gaining support for amendments by two-thirds of the House of Representatives and then the approval of three-fourths of the states.
But it can also be changed if two-thirds of the states apply for a constitutional convention, and a conservative activist is pushing Bible Belt lawmakers to call for this never-attempted mechanism.
Michael Farris, founder and president of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, is behind the Convention of the States campaign that seeks to limit the federal government through the obscure procedure.
The group’s website lists fairly mundane goals – a balanced budget amendment, clarified definitions of the general welfare and commerce clauses, and limits on federal taxation – but most constitutional experts agree that a constitutional convention would open any topic for discussion and possible change.
COS does not specifically mention religion in its goals, but the movement is closely tied to conservative activists who promote the unhistorical idea that the U.S. was founded as a “Christian nation.”
Those supporters include the pseudo-historian David Barton, religious broadcaster Rick Green and right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck, and Farris himself founded the Christian fundamentalist Patrick Henry College and has strong ties to the religious right.
If a constitutional convention was convened, religious protections guaranteed by the First Amendment could potentially be weakened or repealed to promote the conservative Christianity advocated by COS supporters, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Article 5 of the Constitution outlines some rules for the process, which would require at least 34 states to petition Congress for a date and venue.
Each state would then send one voting delegate, most likely selected by a joint session of the state legislature, and amendments could pass by simple majority and then be sent to the states for ratification.
However, any amendments proposed at this convention would then require ratification by three-fourths of the states, making radical changes unlikely.
Not all conservative groups support the measure, including the anti-communist John Birch Society.
“A lot of educational effort is going into both sides of this issue,” said the group’s spokesman, Bill Hahn. “However, since an Article 5 convention process would be unlimited, the outcome of such a convention could be detrimental not only to the Constitution, but to the security and happiness of this and future generations of Americans.”
But the COS movement, which is promoted by Tea Party groups and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, is gaining momentum.
What Sorts of Amendments Could be Passed?
The following are examples of amendment topics that could be discussed at a convention of states:
- A balanced budget amendment
- A redefinition of the General Welfare Clause (the original view was the federal government could not spend money on any topic within the jurisdiction of the states)
- A redefinition of the Commerce Clause (the original view was that Congress was granted a narrow and exclusive power to regulate shipments across state lines–not all the economic activity of the nation)
- A prohibition of using international treaties and law to govern the domestic law of the United States
- A limitation on using Executive Orders and federal regulations to enact laws (since Congress is supposed to be the exclusive agency to enact laws)
- Imposing term limits on Congress and the Supreme Court
- Placing an upper limit on federal taxation
- Requiring the sunset of all existing federal taxes and a super-majority vote to replace them with new, fairer taxes
The Georgia Senate voted 37-16 last week to set aside the Constitution written by the Founding Fathers and start over again, and lawmakers in eight other states – Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and South Dakota — are deliberating similar proposals.
Virginia’s House of Delegates rejected a measure 67-29 last week to ask Congress to convene a constitutional convention, but its sponsor has already promised to introduce it again next year.