ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Although the U.S. Constitution was written 223 years ago, the debate over what it means never dies. Across the state, the We the People competition puts high-school students’ knowledge of the Constitution to the test.
After months of studying, students converged on Anchorage from across the state this week to use what they've learned in debates. Ideas that have played out in the nation’s history now play out before judges, who will determine how well they're understood by the students.
“For every generation, we have to discuss democracy,” said statewide We the People coordinator Maida Buckley. “When you have a system based on ideas, ideas need to be taught.”
Almost every debate incorporates historical details about the evolution of Constitutional rights. In a session with South High School, it’s mentioned that slaves, though denied the right to vote in the original Constitution, were each counted as three-fifths of a person when determining how many representatives a state should have.
“Slave-owning wasn't outlawed by the Constitution until the 13th Amendment,” said South student Katie McFarlane.
“Can you think of examples in the Constitution that protected the rights of minorities? For instance, slave owners: aren't they a minority?” asked We the People judge Terrence Cole.
Cole, the director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ public history office, is also one of the state's best-known historians.
“We the People is a unique competition, because it's the entire class -- it's really one of the wonderful things,” Cole said. “It's actually awe-inspiring, because they take it really seriously.”
The debates at the Hotel Captain Cook are filled with bright minds flexing their intellectual muscle.
“It's really a wonderful thing for the weakest and the strongest students all to have their time in the sunshine,” Cole said.
“With British Parliament we didn't have our voice here, whereas now we have so many different branches of government, and so many different ways we can have our voice heard,” said North Pole student Paige Poston.
Students’ voices are definitely being heard by judges, who say they find the dialogue a refreshing change from our current political debate.
“It's great to have discussion more focused on the facts and less focused on emotions, because you really do come to a better conclusion when you are not so emotional and are really just arguing the facts,” said judge Julie Hasquet, an aide to Sen. Mark Begich.
This year, West High School is the team to beat. Its students are the current state champions, and have placed in the national competition.
“Eat some fresh fruit, keep your head in the game -- fresh fruit,” West’s We the People coach, Pamela Orme, told her team. “Our judges are outside: let's rise.”
The First Amendment is the focus in this round, as a debate pits freedom of speech against freedom of religion.
“Freedom of thought is the matrix, the indispensible condition of nearly every form of freedom,” said West student Aviva Hirsch.
“If I went into school tomorrow wearing a baseball cap and saying, ‘This is my religion, I have to wear this baseball cap, it violates my religion,’ that's not necessarily my religious belief,” said West student Thomas Troxel. “However, I could claim that the school can't violate my religious belief in this case. I think the Supreme Court would uphold that just wearing a baseball cap, a mariner's hat wouldn't be my religion, and they wouldn't hold that.”
“The Sherbert test, as established in the Supreme Court case Sherbert v. Berner, 1963, is the closest thing to an actual test for religion,” said West student Colt Richter. “And this is an extremely subjective test, because there is no way to truly know what a person believes.”
Only one of these teams will win the competition to represent Alaska in Washington, D.C. But no matter how the scores add up, from the judges’ perspective all of the students are winners.
State Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage was one of the judges. After the debates, he told the students that although the competition was over, their role as citizens is never done.
North Pole took third place in the competition, while second place went to South High and first place again went to West High. Organizers say the competition was fairly close.
Contact Rhonda McBride at email@example.com