A state's constitution is the fundamental set of principles by which the state is to be governed.
It is, therefore, of foundational importance and superior to all other laws of the state, as in the case of the written U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Can you imagine how awful it would be if there were a discriminatory law still within the Constitution?
Imagine, for example, if there were a provision prohibiting a black person being president of the United States.
Imagine how that would have powerfully condoned and promoted white racism, bigotry, and contempt in the 1950s and 1960s in, say, Mississippi.
And suppose presidents and members of Congress had ignored that foundational provision, and merely expressed concern about some individual Jim Crow laws in Mississippi.
Would they have gotten away with it? Would the rest of the world have ignored that Pontius Pilate hand washing act?
How come, then, that the British constitution and "the Queen/King in Parliament" – have gotten away with constitutionally enshrined discrimination and sectarianism?
Since 1701 – 316 years, for goodness sake – until this very moment, and ongoing, there is at the heart of the British constitution a law prohibiting a Catholic being king or queen of England.
The Act of Settlement of 1701 is an integral part of the unwritten, un-codified British constitution which consists of, according to University College London, "an accumulation of various statutes, conventions, judicial decisions and treaties which collectively can be referred to as the British Constitution."
The 1701 Act of Settlement determines succession to the Crown of England, and is, therefore, a fundamental constitutional statute.
Indeed, it is the very foundation stone of the royal family.
The Act of Settlement contains provisions that decree only a Protestant can succeed to the British throne and that if the monarch becomes a Catholic, or marries a Catholic, he/she forfeits the throne and "the people are absolved from their allegiance."
The ban on marrying a Catholic was repealed in February 2013 by the Succession to the Crown Act.
However minimalistic that change may have been to the ordinary Englishman in the street, how do you think the extreme Orangeman would react to any proposed change in this Anti-Catholic law?
The Belfast Telegraph gives the answer: "Members of the Protestant Orange Order [led by Jeffrey Donaldson MP, DUP] have descended on Downing Street to oppose the lifting of a ban on those in line to the throne from marrying a Catholic." (Orangemen at No. 10 over Catholic ban." Saturday, November 12, 2011).
The Succession to the Crown Act also removed the outdated sexist rule that allowed a woman in the line of succession to be superseded by a younger brother.
Thus, Queen Elizabeth II would not, in fact, have become queen in 1952 had she had a younger brother.
In effect and consequence, the ban on a Catholic being king or queen would be like having a provision in the U.S. Constitution prohibiting a black person, or a Jewish person, being president of the United States – irrespective of the historical reasons for the Act of Settlement, 1701 (and there are always historical reasons, anyway, for all sorts of sectarianism/racism, two sides of the same coin).
Certainly, pointing out that the queen is also head of the Church of England is no valid excuse, and should cut no ice with Americans who know, and are proud of the fact that the Founding Fathers insisted on separation of church and state, this being enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
The Act of Settlement may mean little to the ordinary Englishman in the street, but it does, indeed, mean a whole lot to extreme Unionists/Loyalist/Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Time and time again, unionist leaders in Northern Ireland have pointed out that their allegiance is not just to the British Crown but, rather, to "Protestant succession to the British Crown."
This is like American white supremacists saying their allegiance would only be to the U.S. Constitution if it guaranteed their supremacy while ensuring that blacks were deemed inferior.
Why am I one of the few people in America who, for over 40 years, has raised the state-sponsored anti-Catholicism of the 1701 Act of Settlement?
How can constitutional bigotry and discrimination be conveniently ignored? And to be clear: anti-Catholicism is not about theological disagreement with Catholicism, but rather a socio-political system and mind-set determined to keep Catholics down.
Just as anti-Semitism is not a theological disagreement, but rather an organized system of hostility towards people of the Jewish faith or heritage.
Of course, it is easy for some people to criticize the extreme anti-Catholicism of the Orange Order and the thuggery of associated Protestant paramilitaries.
But it was not the Orangemen who enacted the anti-Catholic Act of Settlement.
To quote the University College of London again: "It has been suggested that the British Constitution can be summed up in eight words: What the Queen [Monarch] in Parliament enacts is law. This means that Parliament, using the power of the Crown, enacts law which no other body can challenge."
And that's where the buck stops.
In significant measure, orange bigotry and anti-Catholicism is but a logical, inevitable outworking of the 1701 Act of Settlement, which must be seen as an utter disgrace to modern-day England.
For as long as it is in place, extreme fundamentalist Orangeman will see it as their patriotic duty to endorse and implement this act, which means refusing to accept Catholics as equals, because the British constitution does not.
Fr. Sean McManus is founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Irish National Caucus.