Let’s Celebrate Independence

We, the citizens of the United States of America, celebrate our Declaration of Independence 239 years after a small group of rebels told the king of the world’s most powerful nation that he could not rule over them. Those radical men dared tell the king that their individual rights were more important than their mother country’s sovereign power, but they were not the first English-speaking people to challenge royal authority.

English-speaking people are celebrating the 800th anniversary this year of an agreement called the Magna Carta made at Runnymede, England, on June 15, 1215. The agreement failed to avoid civil war by resolving differences between King John and 40 barons that opposed his oppression. However, that unsuccessful conciliatory effort produced the following enduring principles:

“No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised [land confiscated], outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”

To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.”

The Pope nullified the Magna Carta a few days later, and groups reinstituted it several times, but its endurance as the birth of ideas far exceeded its effectiveness at resolving the conflict that inspired its composition.

Fast forwarding 561 years after King John fixed his seal to the Magna Carta, we find in that bold group of rebels’ declaration to King John’s successor, King George:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The bold declaration of our forefathers in 1776 spawned a constitutional republic that continues to grow and evolve as our understanding of civilized society expands and deepens. Last week, the United States Supreme Court made this interpretation of our United States Constitution in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges with respect to same-sex marriage:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Regardless of whether you are still celebrating, mourning, or pondering that decision, we can celebrate on our nation’s birthday that fiercely opposed groups can resolve their differences in a courtroom instead of a battlefield. We can also celebrate that, as President Abraham Lincoln challenged a crowd to resolve in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863, we have not let our “government of the people, by the people, for the people, … perish from the earth.”

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