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.”
Another drag on the fundraising may have been Bliss’ decision to keep the monument simple. “Not a single contributor is mentioned,” Bliss said. “I refused to put logos on it.”
After the juggling video, Bliss did a gig at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for ailing children. Newman’s foundation gave him $50,000 for the memorial, and has since given more.
COMEDIANS TO THE RESCUE
A turning point came this May with a Phoenix comedy festival mounted by Bliss and his friends in the comedy world, including Lewis Black, Tommy Smothers, Steven Wright and Dick Gregory. The event pulled in more than $110,000.
It was no surprise to Bliss that comedians would pull together for the monument. “The best comics are really interested in ideas,” Bliss said. “And to a comic, the First Amendment is like what a rented Ferrari is to a Formula One driver — we abuse the hell out of it.”
The Phoenix legal community has also supported the monument campaign, said David Bodney, managing partner of Steptoe & Johnson LLP’s Phoenix office, “though there always could be more.”
Bodney said the memorial has been “a labor of love for Chris,” and a welcome unifying symbol “after a contentious election season, particularly in our state.”
As the coffers grew closer to the $375,000 goal, Bliss finally could get serious about the design and location of the monument. “It faces the capitol, and the sun will set on it,” Bliss said. The plaza hosts more than 20 other monuments — including, for comparison shoppers, a Ten Commandments display.
Kincannon Studios of Austin, Texas, designed the memorial, and each amendment — even the usually ignored Third — will have its moment in the sun, literally. The Third Amendment bars the government from quartering troops in homes without the consent of the owner — not a pressing problem these days.
The First and Second amendments will probably get the most attention, Bliss acknowledged, but he said enthusiastically that even the Third Amendment conveys an important message. “It reminds people that the Bill of Rights came from real-life experience,” including British troops being billeted in colonial homes. “Every word of the Bill of Rights was in response to a real-life oppression. It wasn’t an academic exercise.”
Bliss also hopes visitors will study amendments four to eight, which give important protections to privacy and to those accused of crimes. “They’re not just a technicality that gets the bad guy off,” he said.
In addition to educating students, Bliss hopes the monument will become the backdrop for public events, including protests. His next target is Austin, where he lives now and where the state has given him a green light. Austin is also where one of the Supreme Court’s Ten Commandments cases, Van Orden v. Perry, originated.
His ultimate goal, Bliss says with tongue in cheek, is to recast the public understanding of the significance of December 15. In addition to being Bill of Rights Day, it’s National Cupcake Day, which often captures more media attention.
Said Bliss, “What I really hope is to take the news cycle away from National Cupcake Day.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at email@example.com.