By trade, Chris Bliss is a stand-up comic and juggler not a lawyer.
In spite of that, or maybe because of it, Bliss is on the verge of a unique accomplishment that will warm the hearts of lawyers. Almost single-handedly, he has willed into existence what may be the first-ever monument to the Bill of Rights in the nation. He hopes there will be many more.
On December 15, also known as Bill of Rights Day, the monument will be dedicated near the Arizona state capitol in Phoenix with the blessing of state Republicans and Democrats alike rare in a state that has become known for divisive politics.
Ten limestone monoliths, each etched with the words of one of the amendments, will spread across an arc at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, an entry point for thousands of school children visiting the state capitol. The monoliths are designed to echo the shape of the red rocks of Sedona, Ariz.
Bliss, 60, talks about the dedication as if he can't quite believe it is finally happening. It is the latest highlight of "the unusual life I lead," which two weeks ago had him doing his comedy routine aboard a 6,000-passenger cruise ship in the Caribbean. Back on dry land, he threw himself into planning the event, which will feature politicians including Republican Governor Jan Brewer and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat. Another key supporter, Democratic Congresswoman-elect Kyrsten Sinema, may also attend. She will be the first openly bisexual member of Congress. "She is also openly bipartisan," Bliss joked.
The idea for the monument came to Bliss seven years ago, when he was looking for a "positive, common ground project" to take on. He wanted to get above the "culture wars," which at the time included battles over Ten Commandment monuments in public spaces. Why not, he thought, erect monuments to the Bill of Rights, too, and "let people comparison-shop"?
The Bill of Rights has become a forgotten document, Bliss said. "When you mention it, people think you are talking about a patient's bill of rights or an airline passenger's bill of rights."
Yet internationally, Bliss said, the principles in the Bill of Rights are "the demands people make when they are fighting oppression."
A SLOW START
After a Google search turned up no other monuments to the Bill of Rights, Bliss decided to try to make it happen. A native of Washington, Bliss said, "I grew up in a city of monuments. I thought, how hard could this be?"
It wasn't easy. Bliss created a website, MyBillOfRights.org, and turned first to Arizona, where he was living at the time. He got initial support but no money from the Arizona Legislature, with the help of Sinema, then a member of the Arizona House of Representatives. Meanwhile, Bliss' career took a new turn when a 2006 video of him juggling went viral in the early days of YouTube, with nearly 2 million views.
But fundraising was slow, at first. "The Bill of Rights didn't have an existing constituency" to support a monument, unlike fallen police officers. "People don't build monuments to ideas. There's the Statue of Liberty, and not much else."
Josh Wheeler, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, agrees with Bliss on that point. It took the center nearly 10 years to win approval for a First Amendment monument in Charlottesville, Va. a much-used community chalkboard and podium. "To finally dedicate the first major monument honoring the Bill of Rights is long overdue," Wheeler said. "Chris has created a monument that will remind and inspire generations to come."