Scrubbing the Public Square

    The decision of the federal district court in Montgomery, Alabama, this week -- ruling that a monument to the Ten Commandments in that state's Supreme Court building was unconstitutional -- has been widely publicized. The case started when the chief justice, Roy Moore, had a monument placed in the rotunda of the court's building featuring the Ten Commandments carved in granite and a plaque that bears the inscription, "Laws of nature and nature's God" -- words, by the way, taken straight from the Declaration of Independence. In the case brought by the ACLU, Chief Justice Moore testified that his purpose in erecting the monument was to remind people of the relationship between the Ten Commandments and our legal system. They constituted, as he put it in the trial, "the moral foundation of American life." The district court judge who heard the case agreed with Moore about the centrality of the Decalogue, but he said that the monument communicated more than the idea that the Commandments are "valued and revered." The monument suggests they are "holy and sacred." Whoa! This has gotten out of hand. The ACLU says that we Christians are using public property to proselytize. But remember, in citing the Ten Commandments, we are citing Jewish Scriptures. Michael Novak argues in his superb book, On Two Wings, that our founding fathers were enormously influenced by the Hebrew Scripture. Second, historians recognize that the Ten Commandments are foundational to Western law. They enormously influenced Anglo-American jurisprudence. That's simply a fact of history, not something made up to try to create a "sacred monument," as the judge put it. Third, the memorable words, "Laws of nature and nature's God," were penned by Thomas Jefferson, hardly a Christian. He only used the Bible after he cut out all references to miracles. He was antagonistic to clergy, and yet he believed in protecting the church from interference from the federal government. That's what he meant by "separation of church and state." Finally, the law has been well settled on the question of secular purpose. If a monument has a secular purpose, as it seems to me this one clearly does, then a decision of the Supreme Court recognizes that it can remain on public property. In 1984, then-Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing for the majority in a five-to-four decision, said that a crèche -- certainly more of a religious symbol than a monument to the Ten Commandments -- served "a legitimate secular purpose." He noted that the crèche was merely a "neutral harbinger of the holiday season, useful for commercial purposes." I didn't like Justice Burger's language, but certainly his reasoning is sound. And if the crèche is constitutional, certainly the Ten Commandments -- with language from the Declaration of Independence -- should be constitutional. But this case isn't about history or the Declaration of Independence or the Ten Commandments. It's just another effort in a long campaign to promote anti-Christian prejudice. I find this tiresome and offensive. This is a case that has to be fought. It is unconscionable to me that someone would want to take down a monument that contained the Decalogue and the words from the Declaration of Independence. When are we going to wake up to the fact that we are like a people sawing off a branch that we're sitting on? For further reading and information: "Christian America," a "BreakPoint This Week" special broadcast, includes interviews with Mark Noll of Wheaton College and Marvin Olasky of the University of Texas and World magazine. They discuss the idea of our country being a "Christian" nation -- exploring what American history reveals about this topic. The CD also includes a speech, "Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State," that American University professor Daniel L. Dreisbach delivered recently at The Heritage Foundation. Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (Encounter, 2001). Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State (New York University Press, 2002). Brandi Grissom, "Commandments displays embroiled in court battle," Daily Texan, 20 November 2002. Gary Schneeberger, "'Ten Commandments Judge' Called 'Religious Nut' by Opposition Lawyer," and "Alabama's 'Ten Commandments Judge' Makes His Case," Citizen Web Extras. Lawrence Morahan, "'Ten Commandments Judge' Says the Monument Stays," CNS News, 19 November 2002. Visit the Ten Commandments Defense Fund for more information on Judge Roy Moore and the right to display the commandments. Pamela Pearson Wong, "'Moore' Justice: An Interview with Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore," Family Voice, May/June 2002 (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).


Chuck Colson



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