George Bush stopped for applause 69 times during his State of the Union address, according to one CNN correspondent. Most applause breaks were written into the speech, but I doubt that Bush foresaw an interruption when he reported that key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year.
The most offensive restrictions of civil liberties that Bush promoted on Tuesday are the Patriot Act and the Defense of Marriage Act. The Patriot Act was pushed through Congress just a month after Sept. 11, 2001 and its unconstitutional provisions have been the subject of fierce national debate about the conflict between freedom and security. One of several key provisions that sunsets next year is Section 215, which allows the FBI to obtain your library, travel, health, business, genetic and even video rental records without your knowledge and without any meaningful judicial oversight.
Bush made the valid point that many provisions similar to those in the Patriot Act have been used to catch embezzlers and drug traffickers for years. The problem is that the Patriot Act has become a two-way street. Not only does it legitimately permit common practices to be used against terrorism, but its more extreme provisions like wire-tapping have been used against petty American criminals. In November of last year, provisions of the Patriot Act were used to investigate a public corruption probe involving a strip club owner and local politicians. This isn’t the kind of crime that keeps Americans awake at night, nor the kind of crime that the Patriot Act was designed to prevent.
It’s imperative that unconstitutional provisions like Section 215 are repealed, and Congress is already moving to do so. It wasn’t just a few left-wing congressional Democrats who applauded unexpectedly when Bush mentioned the sunsetting provisions. Congressmen Butch Otter (R-ID) introduced legislation last July to stop the “sneak and peek searches” authorized by the Patriot Act. More than 100 Republicans joined him in voting for the repeal. Congressmen and citizens alike are increasingly opposed to the Patriot Act’s infringement on civil liberties. While Bush calls terrorists “enemies of freedom,” the Patriot Act is an internal assault on the Bill of Rights.
While one egregious piece of legislation may be on the way out (cross your fingers), there’s equally unconstitutional legislation on its way in. Bush called for mandatory drug testing, an invasive procedure that violates privacy rights, unfairly targets minority students, and has been found ultimately ineffective. His reference to the legal rights of terrorists raised questions about the Guantanamo Bay detainees who have yet to see a lawyer. He has plans to open funding to faith-based charitable groups that openly discriminate in hiring, firing and providing services.
The Patriot Act is the poster child for the Bush administration’s restrictions on freedom, but it wasn’t the only high-profile civil liberties issue raised on Tuesday — Bush also expressed support for the Federal Marriage Act. The bill’s 1996 predecessor, the Defense of Marriage Act, bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions and allows states to ignore these contracts in other states. Bush’s Federal Marriage Act defines marriage as an exclusively heterosexual union, and may overturn state provisions for civil unions. It summarily dismisses homosexual relationships and denies gays equal rights as citizens.
Bush attacked the “activist judges” that have approved progressive legislation in Vermont and Massachusetts, accusing them of advancing a liberal agenda. If he’s so sure of that, the proper recourse is through an appeals court, not through a constitutional amendment. Bush stressed the primacy of popular opinion over court rulings, but Americans haven’t demonstrated a penchant for open-minded analysis in the past. The touted importance of public opinion is all the more reason that this issue should be decided locally, not mandated federally. States should have the right to decide the kinds of unions they recognize, and the Constitution should not enforce discrimination.
In his State of the Union address, Bush called on America to “respect individuals as we take a principled stand for a fundamental, enduring institution.” Let’s hope that Congress takes a stand for the primacy of the Constitution. In the next year, it will be asked to support legislation that restricts civil rights, free speech and privacy rights. It’s time it did more than just applaud for civil liberties. Votes against the Patriot Act and the Defense of Marriage Act will publicly reinforce the importance of the Constitution and the value of liberty and equality.
Bush was right about one thing. America is called to great responsibilities, and the first among them is to protect our freedom. Even a ten-year-old (or a two-year-old) could tell you that.