Surveying Hoosier students nearly 20 years ago, results revealed a majority could name The Three Stooges but not the three branches of U.S. government.

That startled the Lions of Indiana.

Seventeen years ago, the group decided to start Liberty Day Indiana, a nonpartisan, nonprofit volunteer effort to educate people about the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

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Working with civic organizations, parents, attorneys, elected officials and college students, the Denver, Colorado-based Liberty Day Institute provides booklets containing America’s founding documents.

Liberty Day Indiana started in southern Indiana but now consists of programs all over the state.

State chairman W.G. “Bill” Willis of West Baden recently visited Immanuel Lutheran School and Trinity Lutheran High School in Seymour to hand out the booklets and present a program on the Constitution. It was for eighth-graders at Immanuel and sophomores and juniors at Trinity.

When the Constitution was approved in 1787, Willis said the world was ruled by tyrants, kings, queens and dictators. The world also was in constant turmoil with nation against nation around the globe, and poverty was rampant.

“But because there were men with the god-given foresight and the ability to put together this marvelous instrument of government in 1787, the world changed forever,” Willis said.

In just 17 weeks, the Constitution was written, establishing the three branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial.

Legislative powers were granted for Congress, consisting of the House of Representatives and Senate. They write the laws.

Members of the House serve two-year terms, and there are 435 total members. Indiana has nine of them.

“(The two-year term) means that he’s paying attention to the voters all of the time,” Willis said. “He’s running for re-election from the day after he gets elected to the next election, so he’s got his ear to the ground, he’s listening to what the voters have to say and paying attention, and that’s what our forefathers wanted to make sure would happen.”

Each state has two senators, so there are 100 total members. They have six-year terms.

“They are not going to be as responsive as a member of the House, at least not until they are running for re-election again,” Willis said.

The executive branch relates to powers of the president and all of the people who serve under him. The president, who is elected every four years, is responsible for enforcing or executing the laws.

“This year is an interim election, and so the party that is out of power generally increases their numbers in an off-year election when a president is not running for election,” Willis said. “This year in November, the party not the majority picks up seats in the House and Senate. We will see if that happens this year.”

The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and all of the federal courts created under it. The nine Supreme Court justices are in for the long term and are the stabilizing force of the government, Willis said.

“They are responsible for adjudicating the laws that Congress passes and determining if they are constitutional or not,” he said.

Today, 36 percent of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of government, Willis said. That’s why he sees the importance of handing out the Constitution booklets and conducting the programs.

Willis also touched on the amendments to the Constitution, highlighting the first 10, known as the Bill of Rights, that were ratified effective Dec. 15, 1791.

The First Amendment says Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Freedoms of speech and the press and the rights of people to assemble peacefully and petition the government for a redress of grievance also are a part of that amendment.

“Only 5 percent of Americans can identify the number and can tell how many liberties are preserved by the First Amendment,” Willis said. “Well, we think American history students in Indiana need to know that, so that’s what this program is all about.”

He said the United States is the only country that has each of these liberties protected.

“We are the only country in the world in which you can discuss virtually any subject with the free interchange of ideas and not be arrested because most places in the world, there are things that you are prohibited from discussing in public, so it’s important for us to be thankful for this special privilege that we have,” he said.

The preamble also is a unique aspect of the Constitution. Even though it is an introductory paragraph, it was written after the Constitution was completed, Willis said.

“I would urge if you haven’t already memorized it, do so,” he said. “You need to have this in your noggin the rest of your life. You need to know what the preamble says verbatim because it is the embodiment of what we are all about as a nation. From this, we developed the greatest document of national government ever penned by the hand of man.”

Willis said the preamble’s famous first three words, “We the people,” are important because the United States was the first nation to be organized under that style of governing.

“We the people will tell you, the government, what you may and may not do, so we can be very thankful that God blessed our forefathers with the wisdom and the knowledge to be able to put together this document, which has now governed our nation for 240 years,” he said. “That’s remarkable.”

Many other countries have gone through numerous governing documents, but that doesn’t include the United States.

Through a civil war, two world wars, an industrial revolution, social transformations and going from 13 states to 50 states and from 3 million residents to more than 300 million, America has operated under the same governing document, Willis said.

“Now that’s remarkable,” he said. “This country has gone through a lot of impossible situations and come out on the other end because in God we trust, so we have a lot to be thankful for.”

John Anderson, a social studies teacher at Trinity, said he was glad Willis reached out to the school about the program. Trinity students learn about the Constitution in U.S. history as a sophomore and U.S. government as a senior.

“Sophomore year, we look at the history of the Constitution — when it was written, how it was written, who wrote it, why it was written — and then I do a quick review of what’s in the Constitution,” he said. “Then government in your senior year, that’s really just a semester-long exposition of what is in the Constitution.”

Anderson said Willis’ program gives the students an opportunity to hear the information from a different source.

“For us, it’s nice it reinforces what we do in the classroom and to hear someone else besides the teacher say, ‘This matters,’” Anderson said.

Sophomores Jaryn Holtsclaw and Amelia Hessong both said they have learned about the Constitution this year in Anderson’s class and in some previous history classes, and the program provided reinforcement.

“I’ll have a better understanding of what I’m learning and really get to know it,” Holtsclaw said.

“The freedoms, it was nice to learn specifically, a good refresher on that,” Hessong said. “It’s definitely good for all of the people that aren’t as familiar with it, and then they can actually get to learn more about it.”

Did you know?

It took 17 weeks to complete the U.S. Constitution.

Today, 36 percent of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of government.

The preamble comes before the Constitution, but interestingly enough, it was written after the Constitution had been completed.  Gouverneur Morris, a man from Pennsylvania who had a flair for writing, was given the task of writing the introductory paragraph.

Only 5 percent of Americans can tell how many liberties are preserved by the First Amendment. And only 1 percent of Americans can tell you what each of them are.

Source: W.G. “Bill” Willis, state chairman of Liberty Day Indiana

About the program

Liberty Day Indiana is a nonpartisan, nonprofit volunteer effort to educate students about the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and is coordinated by the Lions of Indiana.

The program provides copies of the U.S. Constitution to eighth- and 11th-grade U.S. history students and began in 2001. Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a proclamation designating March 16 as Liberty Day, inviting “all citizens to celebrate and reflect on this precious model for governing of our states and nation and the many freedoms we are privileged to have as citizens.”

Liberty Day coordinators arrange for presentations with schools and elected officials, including members of Congress and the state legislature, or other state or local officials who talk about the meaning of the Constitution during a 45-minute student assembly.

Thomas Jefferson said the greatest man among the nation’s founding fathers was James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and fourth president, whose birthday is March 16, the date originally designated as Liberty Day. The program has evolved into presentations during the weeks of Sept. 17 (Constitution Day), March 16 or whenever a school can schedule an assembly.

Free Liberty Day Constitution booklets are provided free of charge to students by patriotic sponsors that pay for the printing cost. Booklets are normally sent to the Lions Club coordinator. The goal is to have three or more programs in each of the Indiana Lions districts each year.

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Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.