Thou shalt not ignore the First Amendment

I’m not a particularly religious person. Though many in my family are Catholic, I’m happy to identify myself as agnostic. But I do know about the Ten Commandments. Blame TV for showing Cecil B. DeMille’s epic every Easter, I guess.

Every year, I see Charlton Heston, now the National Rifle Association’s poster boy, hoisting up those two stone tablets. But this year, I don’t have to wait until spring to see those famed words from the Old Testament, the foundation for the Torah, the Bible and the Quran. No – this year, thanks to Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, I’m getting my fill of the Ten Commandments.

When I got married at New York City Hall a few weeks ago, the separation of church and state was almost humorously clear. A fake stained glass window in the little chapel was clearly developed to be non-sectarian – two interlocked gold rings and a dove (although, being New York, it might’ve been a pigeon).

Not the case in Alabama during the past few years. In 2001, Justice Moore “snuck in” a two-ton chunk of stone with those famous two tablets carved on top. So any couples seeking a simple non-religious wedding first had to pass by this massive display of Judeo-Christian behavior rules.

When a federal court ruled that the monument had to be removed, protesters flocked from around the country to camp out on the courthouse steps in support of Moore’s choice of statuary. Those supporters and the lawyers representing Moore all had the same basic argument. They all say that the concept of separation of church and state is a false interpretation of the Bill of Rights, that the founding fathers were Christian men, and that an acknowledgement of “the almighty God” is completely appropriate, just like in the Pledge of Allegiance. Some of them even point out that the Ten Commandments can be found in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, so it’s not a Christians-against-the-rest type of thing.

On that last one, I agree, the Ten Commandments isn’t just Christian. However, its display on government property slights the many, many other religions besides the Big Three, and those who have no religious affiliation. It sends the message that if this isn’t the background you walk in there with, it’s going to be the code you’re judged by anyway.

Which is fine on the big ones like “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal.” That’s a pretty universal moral agreement. Honor elders – everyone agrees with that unless you run an HMO or are a Medicare privatization lobbyist. No adultery – good. No lying – good.

But, keeping Sabbath, no other God, no “graven images” – those are the ones that get a little sticky. In the current climate, with hate crimes being committed by individuals and governments against anybody who might possibly be Muslim, and with a history of houses of worship being bombed and torched in this country, should the courts be enforcing rules of a particular religion, or of any? Do we want to have a state-endorsed religion, given preference over any others?

The battle continues. U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan assure the public that every single religious faction will be respected in the formation of new governments, but that principle isn’t being upheld by Alabama Attorney General and Bush federal court nominee Bill Pryor, who says that the Ten Commandments will “save our nation.” Now removed from sight in Alabama, the Ten Commandments granite has already been offered a home in the statehouse of neighboring Mississippi.

The case of this washing-machine-sized piece of stone, locally dubbed “Roy’s Rock,” will likely make its way to Washington, along with the hundreds or even thousands of similar, though smaller, carvings in government buildings around the country. (As it turns out, many of these, though not Moore’s rock, were marketing gimmick giveaways to promote DeMille’s movie.)

The U.S. Supreme Court has avoided taking up any of the Ten Commandments cases that have been presented to it since a 1981 decision overturning a Kentucky law requiring the display of those religious rules in every classroom. But it seems that avoidance may come to an end, with politics and emotions over the issue hitting a fever pitch.

With the current Court, it’s hard to say which way the rock will crumble. However, if the altar boy in the White House is given the chance to fill a vacated seat, it’s possible we’ll be seeing more and more rocks like Roy’s.





Jen Barnett is circulation and marketing manager of the People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo. She can be reached at jbarnett@pww.org