Many Americans would not consider their civil liberties to be a laughing matter, but a monument displaying the Bill of Rights scheduled to be constructed and dedicated in Wesley Bolin Plaza by the end of this year began as a joke in comedian Chris Bliss’ standup act approximately five years ago.
In the bit, Bliss proposes “putting up Bill of Rights monuments next to the Ten Commandments so people can comparison shop.”
The gag evolved into real ambition after Bliss researched to see whether any such monuments existed in the country. He realized there were none and soon thereafter set up MyBillofRights.org, an organization dedicated to erecting monuments to the document in all 50 states, beginning with Arizona.
The humor belies Bliss’s commitment to communicating the importance of the Bill of Rights, which he credits as the foundation of civil liberties in the United States and around the world.
His faith in the power of public symbols also drives him.
“I grew up in Washington, D.C., and anyone who has visited there either as or with a child can tell you the impact of monuments in making history visible, tangible, and unforgettable, especially for kids,” he said.
Bliss hopes that the planned Arizona monument will give children an opportunity to get in touch with their identities as citizens of the United States. It will compensate for what Bliss sees as a lack of civics education in schools, which he believes has left children
unaware of the historical basis of their civil liberties.
Children are not the only ones who could use political enlightenment, Bliss said. He also feels discouraged by the “vitriol” in today’s political discourse. He hopes the monument will help dispel the sense of division between conservative and liberal values.
“You know, we have the ACLU and the NRA both under this umbrella called the Bill of Rights,” Bliss said. “This is the perfect thing to be rising up again and say, ‘Look, our common ground is our strongest ground.’ Our greatest accomplishments have been when we’ve lived up to these principles, and our greatest failures have been when we ignored
them as a nation.”
The organization has approximately 25 percent of the $400,000 estimated price tag for construction and of the monument, Bliss said.
That figure includes a donation of the service to install the monument from Sundt Construction, whose CEO Doug Pruitt serves on the organization’s executive committee.
Bliss plans on raising the lion’s share of the construction costs through an event, The Phoenix Comedy Festival, scheduled for May 13 at Phoenix Symphony Hall. Several well-known comedians are slated to perform, including Lewis Black, Bill Engvall, Bobcat Goldthwait, Kathleen Madigan and Don Novello, who plays Father Guido Sarducci.
The monument will share the plaza with other memorials, including one to Vietnam veterans. The Vietnam monument sits on the same hill where Bliss’ Bill of Rights Monument — comprised of several large limestone tablets — will stand. The monument will put those memorials in a new context, Bliss said.
“We honor those people’s sacrifice because we say that they died for our freedom,” he said. “Well, here’s the document the freedom comes from.”
The monument, funded entirely by private contributions, is scheduled to be finished and dedicated on Dec. 15, Bill of Rights Day.