Jewish World Review March 9, 2005 / 28 Adar I 5765

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The Big Ten before the Supreme Court

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Holy \Ho ly\ , a. 1. Set apart to the service or worship of G-d; hallowed; sacred; reserved from profane or common use; holy vessels; a holy priesthood. "Holy rites and solemn feasts.''—Milton.

— Webster's, 1913

Is that monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol unconstitutional? That is, does it represent an establishment of religion or interfere with the free exercise thereof in violation of the First Amendment?

The weaving course of church-state law being what it is, I wouldn't hazard a guess. But confused as they are, cases like this one before the U.S. Supreme Court can be a rich source of amusement for those who can keep their wits, and a sense of humor, about them — even while discussing religion.

Today's highlight from the debate over the Big Ten comes from Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, who wrote a piece in defense of the monument explaining that it was just one of 17 different graven images on the Capitol grounds and therefore perfectly legal.

How's that again? Well, think of those Christmas displays with the manger scene squeezed in between Santa, his elves, Rudolph the Red-Nosed and a bunch of candy canes. All the trimmings are supposed to take the religion out of the religious centerpiece, and make it constitutionally acceptable.

The theory is that, if you just add enough doodads, the crèche becomes part of an historical or cultural display rather than an endorsement of religion. In short, commit a profanation — literally — and the holy can be safely desanctified.

This monument in Austin — a tribute to the Ten Commandments — is supposed to be rendered acceptable by scattering 16 different others around it. Or at least that's what the state of Texas contends. The Ten Commandments then become just a kind of cultural, even archaeological, display to illustrate the origins of law.

Unlike the real statutes and ordinances of the state of Texas, explains its attorney general, the words of the Ten Commandments are not to be taken as actual law. As in I am the L-RD thy G-d, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other g-ds before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing . . . .

As Texas' attorney general assured all and sundry, "The reasonable observer is not likely to mistake these commands for official statements of Texas policy . . . ." Who can argue with that?

To put the attorney general's position plain, just 'cause we put up the Ten Commandments doesn't mean we believe in 'em enough to endorse 'em. That is, the display on the Capitol grounds, to quote General Abbott, "does not constitute an endorsement of religion."

Some of us outside Texas always suspected as much about heathen Texas, but we wouldn't have dared say so before now. But now that we've got an attorney general's opinion on our side . . . .

Whatever the Supreme Court rules in this case, the arguments being made before it demonstrate the most predictable result of mixing church and state: Once the state lays its hands on a religious symbol, and chooses to use it for its own purposes, surrounding the holy with generous heapings of the profane, the Ten Commandments with other icons, the religious symbol is, well, no longer religious.

In this instance, the state of Texas has taken what is holy — set apart for the worship of G-d — and used it for a secular purpose. This display in Austin may or may not be constitutional, but it's certainly not reverent, even if it's meant to be. It's only tacky. Strange, isn't it? When the state chooses to imitate, even replace, the church, nothing can seem so false. Or give rise to such empty contentiousness.

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Yet when this nation respects the wall between church and state, between the holy and the profane, and limits government to its proper sphere, honoring the greatness to be found there, there is something sacred about the product of such restraint. Consider:

Just a few blocks from the Supreme Court of the United States, where the demonstrators gathered outside the courtroom with their separate but equal signs and chants about the Ten Commandments, pro and con, there is a monument to perhaps the greatest of American presidents and spirits.

Is there anything holier in these still United States than the Lincoln Memorial at midnight, with the moonlight illuminating those familiar features?

"In this temple," the inscription above the seated Lincoln reads, "as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever." The immortal words of his Second Inaugural are carved into the granite there, as they are into American history, and American hearts.

Daniel Chester French's massive yet utterly human, fatherly Lincoln looks down with sorrow at the suffering he's seen, yet with malice toward none, with charity for all. And the visitor is overwhelmed with gratitude, even awe, at what G-d wrought and a nation endured.

Surely such a nation, a nation that could produce such a man, and such words, shall endure, even after it has entered history, or even archaeology. And perspective is restored in that temple of the spirit.

When we refuse to make a cheap show of faith, but together honor what is properly ours to honor, our faith shines, even and especially in the darkest night.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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