From the Halls of Government

If prayer and Bible studies in public housing authorities and government-owned recreational centers in towns and cities agitate secularists, such meetings in the halls of state government really make them nervous. In February 2003, Alabama Governor Bob Riley, his cabinet members, and senior staff began voluntary Bible studies each Tuesday morning in the governor's office in the capitol building. Riley said he got the idea while serving in the United States Congress, where many congressmen participated in Bible meetings at the U.S. Capitol. "It's voluntary," said Riley. "Anyone who wants to come is more than welcome." The governor's office said that absolutely no state business would be discussed during the meetings, and the governor was careful to have plenty of other meetings with the staff so that none of them felt pressured to attend the Bible meetings just to gain access to him. Although only eleven of his fifty-five staff members chose to attend any of the meetings, Larry Darby, Alabama director for American Atheists, said there is no way the sessions could be truly voluntary when the governor convenes them. "It's a form of Christian terrorism," said Darby. Alabama and Moore-the Ten Commandments

The separationists' angst over Christian symbols in the halls of state government is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the notorious controversy over the display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and seats of government all over America. In the controversy over the Ten Commandments no one has captured more attention than Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy S. Moore. On August 1, 2001, he unveiled a two-and-one-half-ton granite monument featuring the Ten Commandments, along with quotes from America's founding fathers, in the Alabama State Judicial Building's rotunda. The monument was not paid for with taxpayer funds. The ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed two separate federal lawsuits against Moore, claiming the display of the monument was unconstitutional. Before he was sworn in, however, Justice Moore had promised to display the Ten Commandments at the court and, if the ACLU sued, to "fight them with everything and every ounce of strength I have, because what they're coming against is not me, but it's against truth." Moore said the monument is a depiction of the "moral foundation of the law" that would serve to remind those who see it "that in order to establish justice, we must invoke 'the favor and guidance of Almighty God."

The two cases were consolidated, and after a weeklong trial, District Judge Myron H. Thompson ordered Justice Moore to remove the monument within thirty days. Moore had testified at trial that, while he believed the Ten Commandments were the moral foundation of American law and that the monument certainly acknowledged God, the display of those commandments did not force anyone to follow his Christian beliefs. Judge Thompson disagreed, finding that similar displays on government property had been found permissible only when they also had a secular purpose and did not foster "excessive government entanglement with religion." The Ten Commandments monument, he said, failed that test. Thompson also found the monument to be more than a mere display. "The Court is impressed," he wrote, "that the monument and its immediate surroundings are, in essence, a consecrated place, a religious sanctuary, within the walls of the courthouse." He added, "No other Ten Commandments display presents such an extreme case of religious acknowledgement, endorsement, and even proselytization.." The judge, however, stayed his own order pending the outcome of an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the district court's ruling on July 1, 2003. The court stated, "If we adopted his position, the chief justice would be free to adorn the walls of the Alabama Supreme Court's courtroom with sectarian religious murals and have decidedly religious quotations painted above the bench."

Scholar and author Michael Novak disagreed with the ruling, pointing out that "on the outside wall of the federal courthouse in Montgomery is a much larger statue of Artemis, described in the Court's brochure as the Greek goddess of justice. No one asserts that the statue represents an establishment of religion." Novak also observed that the text on the display is from the Old or Jewish Testament, not the New Testament, making it much less sectarian and much broader. Also, said Novak, the statue is at least ninety feet from the front entrance to the courthouse and impossible to read from that distance. Perhaps Novak's most convincing argument, however, was that merely calling the public's attention to the truth that America had historically treated its liberties, including its religious liberties, as endowments from God, was not necessarily the same thing as establishing a religion."

Not all Ten Commandment suits have unhappy endings. Federal Judge Harry Lee Hudspeth held that a forty-two-year-old Ten Commandments display on state Capitol grounds in Austin, Texas, was not an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The judge found that the memorial was an appropriate tool "to promote youth morality and to stop the alarming increase in delinquency," thereby serving a secular purpose. He stated that no "reasonable observer" would conclude that the state sought to endorse religion with the monument. He further noted that "each of the Ten Commandments has played a significant role in the foundation of our system of law and government" and has "both a secular and religious aspect."

Liberty Counsel's Mathew Staver agreed. "To ignore the influence of the Ten Commandments in the founding and shaping of American law and government," said Staver, "would require significant historical revisionism." Texas Governor Rick Perry issued a statement in support of the ruling, saying, "Today's court ruling is a victory for those who believe, as I do, that the Ten Commandments are timetested and appropriate guidelines for living a full and moral life. The Ten Commandments provide a historical foundation for our laws and principles as a free and strong nation, under God, and should be displayed at the Texas Capitol."

Novak, Staver, and the governor are echoing a similar theme. Displaying the Ten Commandments in recognition of our framers' conviction that our religious liberties derive from God-and even affirming their importance in society's moral foundation-does not constitute the establishment of religion. To diminish their role in the history of this nation based on an extreme reading of the Establishment Clause is a gross overreaction and is utterly incompatible with the intent of the framers. There is a major difference between public acknowledgments of the founders' belief in the foundational importance of the Ten Commandments (and other Judeo-Christian principles) to our liberties and the government's endorsement of the Ten Commandments. While the latter should also not run afoul of the Establishment Clause, the former clearly should not.

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