Our Spring Break study trip to Washington D.C. was an unqualified success. Students gained first-hand exposure to the constitutional, legislative, and advocacy processes and explored the fascinating city that is the nation’s capitol. Here is a recap of the study portions of the trip.
Our first visit was to the office of our Congressional Representative, Tammy Duckworth. Three enormous buildings along the south side of the Capitol house the offices of the 435 members of the House of Representatives.
Rep. Duckworth’s office is in Cannon, where we met with Legislative Assistant Josie Villanueva. Josie used to work on the Senate side and specializes in health policy. She gave us a great introduction to the legislative process, especially the ways that legislators work to try to ensure their bills will pass constitutional muster. As one student noted afterward,
The Assistant also spoke to us about the process involved in drafting a law and having it passed in the House of Representatives. I realized that a lot more people and a lot more time was involved in that process than I had initially thought. Each Representative has a few Legislative Assistants who do much of the work in drafting laws, including the work of writing them and checking for errors. There are hundreds of people involved behind the scenes who put in a lot of work that they don’t receive much credit for.
While at the House office we picked up passes for the House and Senate galleries, which are not part of the standard tour of the Capitol. So for our second stop, at the U.S. Capitol Building, we got to see both the ceremonial spaces and the place where the speeches are given and the votes are taken. No electronic devices of any kind are allowed, so we have to settle for pictures of our passes.
Our visit to the National Archives was intended to spur students to consider how we, as a nation, preserve and portray this vital founding document. At one level, this is a question of information – the actual document itself, and the interpretive exhibits around it. At another level, this is a question of the design of space. One architecture student reflected on the space:
As an architecture student spatial progression is one of those things I pay attention too. In the National Archives I took notice of the progression and arrangement of the documents. Most people, myself included, associate the National Archives with the Declaration of Independence, however, in the half domed space where the documents are housed it was not the Declaration that takes center stage but the Constitution. Moreover, the Declaration is faded nearly beyond readability, but the is arranged in four well-preserved sheets at the top of the room flanked by the Declaration and the Bill of Rights on either side. It was great to see the care that went into preserving our laws over that of what the world, and for that matter most Americans, consider our most sacred document.
Another student had this to say:
One thing that really stood out to me was the fact that the Constitution is guarded by two officers who stand on each side of its strong, unsurpassable casing. I am a firm, steadfast believer that “everything speaks.” The smallest words and actions bear profound significance. That being said, setting aside an aesthetically pleasing space to feature such fundamental documents and ensuring their safety and respect by stationing two guards says a lot about what America values and deems important. From standing in that room alone, I can see America’s passion and reverence for the Constitution. I noticed that the elementary school children visiting seemingly lacked an appreciation for the magnificent documents before their eyes, but it was out of sheer ignorance. However, the students on our trip have had more years of education and have learned about the Constitution more times than they can count, so seeing it up close was a beautiful, reverent experience that my fellow classmates seemed to linger in. The ability to see a great document that we have heard so much about, a document that runs our country, was special and memorable.
Interestingly, different students had different reactions to the space. Another had this reaction:
The National Archives was a solemn, reverent place. It was plain to see how highly regarded the constitution was. I personally thought that the way the Constitution was presented wasn’t really fitting. The room in which it was placed seemed like a tomb. The Constitution, in that room, felt disconnected from everything. It was if it had been placed there and then forgotten about. It had a grand position, but not the celebrated one I was expecting.
The archives provided for historical consideration, while two other appointments emphasized the role of the Constitution in American life today. Our hope hope in visiting the U.S. Supreme Court (sketch at left by architecture major Lacey Wells) was to attend oral arguments, but the court’s schedule did not line up with ours. Nonetheless, we were able to visit the courtroom and enjoyed a stimulating presentation by the docent, himself a retired attorney who had been admitted to the Supreme Court Bar. The lecture included both court procedure and the design of the building, offering interesting connections between practice and symbolism. One student reflected on the work of the justices:
Seeing these ideas in action at the Supreme Court building made me excited to continue my study of History and potentially law. The roles of the justices in deliberating for the majority with the protection of the minority showed me how important that the Constitution is in our lives. After viewing the document itself in the National Archives, just understanding how important that a few pieces of paper with some words on it is the founding document of this nation’s law is was astounding. Understanding how these justices are responsible for upholding these laws were extremely infatuating—especially with seeing how there will be a new justice coming into the Court. I hope to see that these ideals are going to continue to be supported and defended.
Another highlighted the structure:
One of my favorite experiences during the trip was our tour of the Supreme Court. Not only was the building a personal favorite, it was a testament to American justice. From an architectural level the court chamber was impressive, displaying the great lawgivers of history on the entablature along the ceiling. More impressive was the decision to use all foreign material in the chamber so that no state would have supremacy.
Here we are on the front steps of the Court.
Our final appointment was with the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty. We thought it important to include a visit to an advocacy organization that deals with constitutional issues as a central part of its mission. The BJC, located one block from the Supreme Court building, proved an excellent choice. The Committee has an education arm that is well prepared to discuss its work and constitutional issues with college students, and this was one of the best-received visits we had.
We enjoyed meeting with one of the Committee’s lead counsels as well as its communications and outreach specialist, providing both a strong presentation and also good conversation around student (and faculty) questions. Of particular interest was how the different articles and amendments to the Constitution come into play depending on the actors and issues involved. So, for example, religious liberty cases may fall under the Free Exercise or No Establishment clause of the first amendment, or may fall under the Equal Protection clause of the fourteenth amendment, depending on the circumstances.
One student, pleasantly surprised by the substance of the conversation, had this to say:
The main goal of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is to maintain the religious freedom in America. They do this in a variety of ways, including filing briefs with the Supreme Court, as mentioned earlier. Another way they work towards this is education. By teaching people about what the Constitution actually says about religion, they hope that people will gain an understanding of what is actually an infringement of religious freedom. I already knew most of what we were taught about the Constitution. What I didn’t know was how it was used. Apparently First Amendment arguments are rarely used, and instead, cases rely in the Fourteenth Amendment. The visit to the Join Committee was more interesting than I expected it to be.
Our visit to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty was the most interesting to me. The organization works to protect the freedom of religion as granted in the First Amendment to the Constitution. In the presentation we were given there were examples of cases in which the Committee had been involved in. One involved the use of religious headwear in a workplace that banned headwear. The talk showed me how certain situations can be complicated and it can be hard for the Courts to determine what the law says should be done in those situations. The lecture also highlighted why religious freedom for all religions was important.
We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to take these students to Washington D.C. to explore in person these constitutional aspects of American life and law!