Jewish World Review March 11, 2005 / 30 Adar I, 5765
Thou shalt have no other gods before the ACLU
Thus, we are currently treated to the spectacle of the American
Civil Liberties Union dragging the state of Texas into court for the offense
of displaying the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state capitol in
Austin. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide in June whether a display of the
Decalogue violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. This
gives "G-d fearing" a whole new meaning.
"At the very seat of Texas government," thunders the ACLU brief,
"between the Texas State Capitol and the Texas Supreme Court, is large
monument quoting a famous passage of religious scripture taken, almost
verbatim, from the King James Bible." Question: Is there any kind of
scripture that is not religious?
The state of Texas argues that the monument isn't so important
really. It stands at the back door of the capitol, not the front. It is
smaller than several of the other 16 monuments dotting the campus of the
capitol. And it contains many symbols found elsewhere in American public
life such as the pyramid with the eye at the top and an eagle with
outstretched wings clutching the stars and stripes both of which are also
found on the dollar bill. Hard by the Ten Commandments monument are statues
and plaques honoring or memorializing the Boy Scouts of America (under fire
from the left, as well), Korean War Veterans, World War I veterans, Pearl
Harbor, Texas children, the National Guard and pioneer women.
But no religious acknowledgment is too small to escape the
attention of the zealous modern G-d-fearers. The petitioners complain that
the monument "expresses an unequivocal religious message: There is a G-d,
and G-d has proclaimed rules for behavior." We can't have that. Just you
wait, the dollar bill which proclaims in broad daylight "In G-d We Trust"
is not safe.
The G-d-fearers are not engaged in a fool's errand. They have
good reason to suppose that their protest may be well-received. Over the
past several decades, the court's establishment clause jurisprudence has
been, well, peculiar. The court has held that a crèche could be displayed at
Christmastime only if it was accompanied by a requisite number of candy
canes, Santas and other non-religious symbols. The court has also ruled that
states may constitutionally provide maps (and, in a later decision,
computers) for parochial schools, but not books.
The court has held that student-led prayers in a football huddle
constitute an establishment of religion. Ditto an invocation offered by a
rabbi at a public high school graduation. There, Justice Kennedy explained
that asking non-believers to stand and "maintain a respectful silence" was
unconstitutional. Respectful silence just isn't the spirit of the age.
The state of Texas urges the Court to adopt the reasonable
person standard for evaluating the Ten Commandments monument. Would a
reasonable person, seeing this granite slab, assume that Texas meant to
enforce a ban on graven images or to force neighbors to refrain from
covetousness? The brief did jocularly offer that "no one would reasonably
think that the state has adopted a position, one way or the other, on
whether the Dallas Cowboys should continue playing professional football on
Sundays or whether the Texas Longhorns should continue playing college
football on Saturdays (notwithstanding the seriousness, and even religious
fervor, with which Texans approach their football ...)."
The real point is that we've lost our grip on any common-sense
definition of establishment. The Founders did not want to favor one church
over another at the federal level (when the Constitution was ratified,
several states did have established churches). By forbidding one national
church pre-eminence, freedom of worship would be more reliably protected.
The notion that this country, founded firmly in the Judeo-Christian
tradition, could not even mention G-d in public without fearing a subpoena
is simply ludicrous.
If the Supreme Court hands down a ruling that the Texas monument
violates the Constitution, it will do so in the literal shadow of a frieze
on the Supreme Court's chamber depicting none other than Moses holding the
tablets in his hands.
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