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11.03.2003

Supreme Court refuses to hear Ten Commandments appeal 

Link is here. The Supreme Court is going to hear the case about the guy who wants the words "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, however.

Now's probably as good a time as any for me to offer my opinion: According to previous precedents set by the Supreme Court, I think that it is unconstitutional for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in a state courthouse and for the words "under God" to be included in a patriotic oath that is required to be recited by students in a public school.

The Ten Commandments are clearly religious edicts, since they proclaim that "thou shalt have no Gods before me" and "thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain", and displaying them in a courthouse amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement by the government, according to precedent.

There's nothing wrong with the words "under God" being in the Pledge of Allegiance, but as long as that is the case, forcing students in public schools to say it in public assemblies and other functions forces them (at least the ones who pay attention to what they're saying) to acknowledge the existence of God; compelling students to acknowledge God in this way is unconstitutional.

Does this mean that the words "In God we trust" have to be taken off all our currency? Probably, if anybody cared enough to make a stink about it. I think that people who want these references to God to be kept in these public instruments are caught in a bit of a bind: if these words really aren't that big of a deal to anyone, why do they argue so vehemently in favor of keeping them? The fact that they are so strongly opposed to having them removed seems to indicate that the references to God in public institutions and civic exercises qualify as a real religious statement.

Previously I said that both examples are unconstitutional, according to previous precedents. However, I'm not sure I agree entirely with the previous precedents that have been set by the Supreme Court. Nowadays government institutions aren't allowed to do things that express "preferences" for one religion over another; it seems to me as if this is setting the bar really low. I'm not a legal scholar, and I haven't had time to research all the previous Supreme Court cases, so I'm playing it by ear here.

That said, I'm not entirely sure that posting the Ten Commandments inside a courthouse really amounts to an "establishment of religion," as the Founding Fathers understood it. Clearly some government employee in the courthouse is giving a religious endorsement, but nobody is making anyone read them, recite them or believe them. (It may be unnecessary, obnoxious and offensive, but I don't see that it automatically constitutes an establishment of religion.) Similarly, I think having a prayer as part of the Presidential inauguration is perfectly constitutional. Some minister is praying for the President; no one else has to join in. In contrast, making students in public schools recite the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance really does constitute an establishment of a religious belief.

Upon what sort of religious principles was our country founded? As I understand it, many of the Founding Fathers were Deists; they believed in some sort of benevolent God, but many of them had issues with the church, organized religion, and particularly the entanglement of the state with the church, leading them to leave England for the colonies. I think the Founding Fathers would say that God has endowed man with certain unalienable rights, and that the right not to have to acknowledge Him is one of those rights.

If you're a Christian, here's a quick thought experiment. Recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but instead of saying "under God", substitute the phrase "under Allah" or "under Vishnu" or "under that really cute guy Eddie from the Harvard math department, because he's so dreamy!". Decide if it offends your religious sensibilities. (Replace this example with some other instance of an unconstitutional establishment of religion if you prefer.)

It's worth mentioning that Jewish Americans typically are much more supportive of drawing boundaries between religion and government, probably because they've always been a religious minority in America (or in every other country of the world throughout history except Israel, for that matter). It's also worth mentioning that Christianity may not be the dominant religion in America forever; there's a chance that Islam will be the most popular religion sometime within the next 100 years. For those of us who are Christians, it's worth thinking about how we'd like to be treated if we were a religious minority.

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