Yesterday a federal appeals court in Ohio ruled against a state judge in Richland County who had erected a religious display in his courtroom.
James DeWeese, a judge of the Court of Common Pleas, had put up a display entitled “Philosophies of Law in Conflict” that contrasted the “Moral Absolutes” of the Ten Commandments with the “Moral Relatives” of humanism.
This was DeWeese’s second attempt at a Commandments display. His first, erected in 2000, featured the Commandments opposite a poster of the Bill of Rights, presenting each as “the rule of law.”
After a lower court smacked down DeWeese’s most recent effort last year, DeWeese draped a dark cloth over the display accompanied by a sign headlined, “Censored.”
Now that DeWeese has lost in court again, it’s time for him to stop the grandstanding. The appeals court got it right: DeWeese was promoting religion. In this country, that’s not a judge’s job. It might be in Iran, but it’s not here.
In fact, a judge is absolutely the last person you would want going on a religious tear. Representational statues of Justice are blind for a reason: When you come before the court, the judge isn’t supposed to care if you are rich or poor or if you’re black, white, brown, yellow or red. The court isn’t supposed to care if you’re a man or a woman or where your ancestors lived.
The court also isn’t supposed to care what religion – if any – you profess.
Obviously, there have been times in our history when we have fallen short of this ideal. But we’ve made great gains, and it’s a standard we still hold dear – justice for all. It is the very basis of our legal system.
But could all people truly get justice in Judge DeWeese’s court? Could a self-professed humanist, walking into the courtroom and seeing his or her views derided as a dangerous form of moral relativism that is literally destroying the nation, feel comfortable there?
Conversely, wouldn’t a believer who agreed with DeWeese’s views be tempted to find a way to bring that up in court – knowing it might lead to a more favorable judgment?
It's bad enough that DeWeese’s display is factually inaccurate – American law is based on many sources, but not the Ten Commandments or any other religious code. His crude caricature of humanist beliefs is also offensive. But perhaps worst of all is the fact that DeWeese, through his displays, violated a fundamental tenet of our legal system: All are equal before the court.
In DeWeese’s court, some people are more equal than others – and it all depends on what they believe about religion.
DeWeese’s attorney, Francis Manion of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, is considering an appeal to the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court.
A little unsolicited advice to Manion: Stop wasting your time. DeWeese’s track record on this issue is poor because he has a lousy case. The best thing he could do right now would be to drop the religious crusade, remove the display and focus on being the best judge he can for all of the citizens of Richland County, believers and non-believers alike.