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Ten Commandments on trial (Scripps Howard News Service) October 1, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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Let’s face it, there hasn’t been this much excitement about the Ten Commandments since Charlton Heston brought them down the mountain in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic movie nearly 50 years ago. David Letterman’s Top Ten lists are more of an icon in our culture than the Ten Commandments.

And yet, in a flurry of federal cases, the Ten Commandments are being taken to court all over the country. Most famously, of course, the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Alabama to remove its 5,300-pound monument of the commandments from the state court building because it was an improper governmental endorsement of religion. And the American Civil Liberties Union has sued to remove a framed copy of the commandments from the county courthouse in Winder, Ga.

Legal battles have been fought in Texas, where a federal court allowed a monument on the state capitol grounds to stand, and in Pennsylvania, where the federal 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said the commandments could remain in a plaque in the Chester County Courthouse in Pennsylvania. A federal district court judge in Wisconsin set aside an earlier order declaring a Ten Commandments monument in the La Crosse city park unconstitutional.

Now others are getting into the act. Hundreds of Christians are rallying across the South to support displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings. The final rally, in Washington, D.C., is to coincide with the opening of the U.S. Supreme Court’s new term, where many believe the issue will be addressed. Not to be left out, 85 members of Congress have co-sponsored a new bill on the issue: “Ten Commandments Defense Act of 2003.”

Then come the secularists and atheists who aren’t content to question the monuments, but also attack the commandments themselves. Harvard law professor and O.J. defense counsel Alan Dershowitz disregarded the historic roots of the commandments in calling them “un-American.” Harry Binswanger of the Ayn Rand Institute said the commandments represent a “primitive conception of law and morality.” Now a religious group in Utah wants permission to post its own “Seven Aphorisms” in the city park if the Ten Commandments are allowed to remain there.

Both the founding fathers of our republic and the author of the Ten Commandments themselves would have agreed on this: Thou shalt not take the Ten Commandments to court. The role of the Ten Commandments in people’s lives is an individual matter, and their place in public facilities is a decision of state governments, not federal courts.

Federal courts are steadily encroaching on the ability of our society to govern itself. One court says California cannot hold a duly certified election because of voting technology, only to be unanimously reversed the next week by other judges of the same court. Another federal judge says Congress cannot permit citizens to limit telephone calls from marketers during the dinner hour. Yet another court declares that a state cannot decide what may go on the walls of its public buildings. Is it unconstitutional for me to suggest that the federal judiciary chill out and allow some room for self-government?

And while we’re at it, how about a chill pill for the ACLU, which brought courts into both the recall and Ten Commandments decisions. The ACLU protagonists in these battles are undertaking a fast-track effort to wipe out decades, and in some cases centuries, of American history and heritage that includes the mention of God on our currency, in our pledge of allegiance and in our courthouses. The polls say Americans don’t like it and, until recently, courts agreed that the Constitution does not require it.

Unfortunately it will take another court to set the Ten Commandments free. It will doubtless require the U.S. Supreme Court, which may take up the Ten Commandments case or the pledge of allegiance case or both this term, to clarify that the Constitution does not require America to erase every mention of God in the public arena. Perhaps lawyers fighting the Ten Commandments will get a clue when they notice the sculpture in the Supreme Court’s chamber depicting Moses with the tablets, or when they hear the court clerk intone: “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

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