In the rotunda of
Alabama’s state judicial building stands a monument to the Ten Commandments,
but it may not stand much longer. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson of Montgomery
recently ordered that the statue be removed. The ruling came in spite
of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in June that a plaque, very
similar to the monument, did not constitute a true endorsement of religion
because, according to Fox News Channel, “county commissioners who wanted
to keep it were motivated by historic preservation.”
But the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore, announced
today that he has no intention of following the order of Judge Thompson.
“This I cannot and will not do,” he said in a news conference.
Many Americans will probably applaud Chief Justice Moore, and I, too, appreciate
his pluckiness. But I believe that his argument is flawed, and that
the monument should be removed.
Several months ago, when the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals
decided that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional,
most levelheaded Americans knew that the court was entirely wrong.
Merely acknowledging that we are a nation based, in large part, on the belief
and the study of God doesn’t violate the First Amendment—or any other part,
for that matter—of the United States Constitution. That’s abundantly
clear. The phrase doesn’t endorse Christianity or Judaism or Islam
or any other specific religion; it simply recognizes that we are a nation
based, at least in part, on the belief that there is something bigger and
more significant than us, whether it’s morality, or an actual being.
The Ten Commandments, however, are a great deal different.
The Ten Commandments are the precepts that, according to the Old Testament,
were given by Yahweh to Moses on Mt. Sinai. According to Exodus 31:18
they were inscribed on stone tablets by God himself, and Moses is
said to have destroyed the tablets in a rage over his people’s abandonment
of their faith. The Ten Commandments are profoundly religious, and
by allowing them a prominent—perhaps the most prominent—place in a state
building is wrong, and a violation of the First Amendment. The Constitution
prohibits Congress from “respecting an establishment of religion…,” and a
tribute to the Ten Commandments is almost certainly that.
Chief Justice Moore told Fox News that Judge Thompson had “the audacity to
come into our court and say we have to remove the foundation of our law, which
is the Ten Commandments.” With all due respect to Moore, that’s inaccurate.
The Constitution is the foundation of our laws. It supersedes all other
laws that we may write. So to suggest that an intensely religious monument
like the one in question is somehow more significant than our own Constitution
is rather arrogant.
One of the ideas that Senate Republicans have to fight these days is that
conservative jurists like Moor are unable to separate their “deeply held
beliefs” from sound jurisprudence. Liberals haven’t been able to quite
grasp the idea that even religious, pro-life, conservatives can base their
legal rulings not on their own ideologies, but on the Constitution.
This Ten Commandments issue in Alabama only plays into their hands.
Chief Justice Moore has a constitutionally-protected right to practice any
kind of religion he wants to. If he wants to erect tributes to the
Ten Commandments all across America, he can. But he cannot use a public
facility to promote and endorse religion. If the Supreme Court chooses
to hear this case, and I think they probably should, they ought to sort this
out once and for all.
For decades, courts have been trying to determine what constitutes a violation
of the Establishment Clause, and what merely acknowledges the existence of
religion. I am hopeful, though doubtful, that the Supreme Court will
use this case to narrow this time-old debate. In the meantime, Chief
Justice Moore ought to get rid of the monument.
Z. Sterrett, a resident of Aptos, California, is a Lifetime Member of the
California Junior Scholarship Federation and a Sustaining Member of the Republican