A group of residents organized the town’s first Constitution and Citizenship Day to honor and defend the U.S. Constitution.
The event was also a reminder of the ways North Carolina has recently honored and strayed from the intent of the Constitution, according to some of the event’s speakers.
Constitution Day falls on Sept. 17, the day in 1787 that the national Constitutional Convention signed the document.
The event, which welcomed county and town leaders but was not an official municipal event, centered on several topics liberal politicians have taken issue with.
Hillsborough’s Constitution and Citizenship Day featured about a dozen speeches from advocacy groups, legal experts and elected officials about topics such as education, voting rights, same-sex marriage and First Amendment rights.
“People are very divided in their interpretation of the Constitution these days,” said Allison Mahaley, who helped organize the event.
She came up with the idea last summer when friends from England visited for the Fourth of July. She realized that day was a celebration of the revolution but there wasn’t a day for the Constitution.
Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens acknowledged the unique role the town had in creating the Constitution.
In 1788, while other states ratified the U.S. Constitution, North Carolina held its constitutional convention in Hillsborough. Instead of opting for immediate ratification, North Carolina was one of the only states that held out for what became the Bill of Rights, Stevens said.
North Carolina did not ratify the Constitution until 1789, when it was assured the Bill of Rights would be added.
“We are continuing to make history,” Stevens told the crowd of several dozen outside the town’s historic courthouse. “We need to continue to celebrate our rights.”
He said the federal discussion of marriage equality shows how important the Constitution is to this day. The court’s ultimate decision was gleaned directly from the document, he said.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said events like Constitution and Citizenship Day are more important than ever because they remind citizens to pay attention and take action.
“Events like these recharge and re-energize people for the fights,” said Kleinschmidt, a Democrat.
He mentioned the Republican-led General Assembly’s recent redistricting, which some opponents have said relied too heavily on race to draw the new districts, which were based on the 2010 census.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on a similar redistricting plan in Alabama, saying it was unconstitutional.
The state Supreme Court is considering a challenge to North Carolina’s legislative and congressional district maps filed by the NAACP and other groups.
The redistricting plan threatens citizens’ voting rights, said Kleinschmidt, a former high school civics teacher. “It’s a question and that’s unfortunate,” Kleinschmidt said of voting rights.
Other decisions regarding marriage equality and immigration have moved the state further from the intent of the Constitution, he said.
“It’s just rhetoric,” he said. “The answers to these questions are very plain in the Constitution.”