Jewish World Review June 28, 2005/ 21 Sivan, 5765

Wesley Pruden

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The silly season for the Supremes

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Harry Truman one day grew weary of the witch doctors who couched their advice on what to do about the economy in ambiguities, doubts and obscurities. "They tell me, on the one hand this, and on the other hand that," he said. "What I need are some one-armed economists."

Mr. Truman just thought he knew about frustration with the ponderously indecisive. The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court whose hearts are still beating could tell the 32nd president a thing or two about frustration.

The court yesterday delivered two eagerly awaited decisions on whether the Ten Commandments are too racy, too spicy and too vulgar for consumption in government buildings, and the decisions were a mishmash of gossip, uncertainty, theological speculation and arts criticism. The court couldn't say yes in Kentucky and wouldn't say no in Texas. The commandments about murder, adultery and mayhem left the five justices in the Kentucky case mumbling and muttering to themselves.

It's OK to have a "monument" on government grounds, but not inside a government building (like the Bible murals on the walls at the Supreme Court), the justices said, presumably in the belief that if you stand in the rain to read them or reflect on them, the rain will sufficiently cool your passions before you rush out to honor your mother and father, refrain from murder, resist the temptation to steal, cast your eye to envy a neighbor's comely wife or do some of the other things forbidden by the Ten Commandments.

Justice John Paul Stevens, the court's resident art critic and theologian-in-chief, was so frightened by the idea of the "monument" on the Capitol lawn in Austin that he could have strangled on his prune juice.

"The sole function of the monument on the grounds of Texas' State Capitol is to display the full text of one version of the Ten Commandments," he wrote in dissenting from the second majority upholding the right of Texas to include such a "monument" on the Capitol grounds. "The monument is not a work of art and does not refer to any event in the history of the state. The message transmitted by Texas' chosen display is quite plain: The state endorses the divine code of the Judeo-Christian G-d."

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This is curious language for Supreme Court proceedings. Unless he has G-d's e-mail address, it's not clear how Mr. Justice Stevens can be so sure of what the Judeo-Christian G-d's "divine code" may be. Why does he capitalize the word "G-d" unless he means to endorse the idea that the Jewish and Christian G-d is, in fact, G-d, and not just a god? Doesn't this hurt the feelings of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, not to mention atheists, agnostics and other unaffiliated sinners? How can Mr. Justice Stevens conclude so confidently that the Ten Commandments are "the divine code" for Christians, since Christians traditionally believe that the Ten Commandments are good rules for conduct but no longer more than that, since Christ taught that He came to fulfill the law, to replace the law with grace. If he insists on mixing law with theology, he might usefully return to Sunday school.

These judicial Parcheesi games over the legacy of the people will no doubt be with us from now on. The ACLU and its like-minded allies are determined to root out all evidences of faith from the public square. The officers and leaders of the ACLU, lawyers mostly, know they will never actually succeed, but they'll always have permanent clients. Displays of the Ten Commandments, like prayers written by high-school principals and other bureaucrats, couldn't hurt anyone because any prayer written by a government committee, no matter how lowly or how exalted, is not likely to make it through the ceiling, and the fact that the Ten Commandment displays are called "monuments" demonstrates how seriously politicians actually regard them. Monuments by definition honor only cold history and the dead.

But the fight over the Ten Commandments is not about religion, but who gets to say what the Constitution means. "What distinguishes the rule of law from the dictatorship of a shifting Supreme Court majority," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in his level-headed dissent in the Kentucky case, "is the absolutely indispensable requirement that judicial opinions be grounded in consistently applied principle." What he means is that we need more one-armed judges.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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