All things considered, June 27 was not a bad day at the Supreme Court for church-state separation and American diversity.
The justices handed down two closely watched cases dealing with government promotion of the Ten Commandments. By a 5-4 vote, they struck down a Kentucky county’s Commandments display, holding that it had a religious purpose. But the court, again voting 5-4, allowed a Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol, saying it is historic and educational in nature and positioned among an array of other secular monuments.
It would have been better if the court had voided both displays, but on balance, the decisions are more positive than negative. The Texas ruling is narrow, and the court majority has made it clear that more recent displays motivated by religious purpose will not pass muster. The justices also reiterated that religious displays are problematic in public schools. Most importantly, the court rejected calls from the Religious Right to use the cases as a vehicle to begin a radical reinterpretation of church-state law.
Religious Right groups are furious; several have accused the court of attacking our nation’s religious heritage.
This is nonsense. Every church, temple, synagogue and mosque in America is free to display the Commandments. That’s where they have belonged all along. Putting a religious code in courthouses and other public buildings sends a message of exclusion to Americans who adhere to other faiths (or profess no faith at all). It also promotes the false idea that American law is based on the Ten Commandments.
Any attempt to lower our church-state wall must be resisted. In other nations, a lack of distance between religion and government has spawned only oppression (such as in Iran) or lifeless, devitalized religious communities (such as Western Europe).
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor put it well in her concurring opinion to the Kentucky case when she observed, “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”
Why indeed? Yet that same opinion sparked a furious dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia, who asserted there is nothing wrong with the government “favoring religion generally, honoring God through public prayer and acknowledgement, or, in a nonproselytizing manner, venerating the Ten Commandments.”
With one more vote, Scalia could begin to make his vision a reality. It is incumbent upon all who value the church-state wall and true religious liberty to make certain that never happens.