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|The Supreme Court on the Supreme Being||
Last week, the Supreme Court took another step in completely confusing those of us involved in the debate over the expression of faith in government. While it ruled that the Ten Commandments may remain etched in stone outside the Texas Capitol, it ruled the same Ten Commandments may not be posted inside
courthouses in Kentucky.
Justice Thomas nailed the current state of the judicial system by lamenting, "This case would be easy if the Court were willing to abandon the inconsistent guideposts it has adopted for addressing Establishment Clause challenges, and return to the original meaning of the Clause." He openly recognized that the monument has "religious significance," resisting the popular urge to "suggest meaninglessness where there is meaning."
Religious expression on government property has, in the last few decades, been blasted as unconstitutional. Yet Justice Thomas, in concurring with the majority on the Texas case, wrote, "There is no question that, based on the original meaning of the Establishment Clause, the Ten Commandments display at issue here is constitutional."
It would seem, both to members of the Court and to me, that the contemporary movement to purge religious expression from public life is, at best, misguided. The homeless man who brought forth the Texas case claimed injury on the basis of the religious overtones, but Thomas addressed his claim directly.
"The only injury to him is that he takes offense at seeing the monument as he passes it on his way to the Texas Supreme Court Library. He need not stop to read it or even look at it, let alone to express support for it or adopt the Commandments as guides for his life. The mere presence of the monument along his path involves no coercion and thus does not violate the Establishment Clause."
The idea of religious coercion in Texas dates back to her days as a Mexican colony. Stephen F. Austin received the Mexican government’s authority to issue "a league and a labor" of land for ranchers and farmers coming in to settle the territory. Though the land was free, one of the conditions for settlement included conversion to Roman Catholicism, an idea reprehensible to many of the incoming Presbyterians, Methodists and other non-Catholics. Texans, and indeed most Americans, have always bristled at the prospect of forced religious conversion.
But now, almost two centuries later, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. Instead of being coerced to practice a particular faith, we are pressed to profess no faith at all. Religious freedom, we have been told, can exist as long as it is silent. But, this is not what the framers of the Constitution intended.
"Returning to the original meaning would do more than simplify our task," Justice Thomas wrote. "It also would avoid the pitfalls present in the courts current approach to such challenges."
This weekend, we celebrate Independence Day. As we recall the events, people and ideas that liberated our forefathers from oppression, often quoting our founding fathers and reading from early writings that provided the framework of our freedom, the influence of a Higher Power cannot be denied.
"Words like ‘God’ are not vulgarities," Justice Thomas asserted. Though some might find it offensive, public religious expression is not always improper. Often, it’s a simple acknowledgement of our spiritual heritage.
Theodore Roosevelt, our twenty-sixth president, often quoted Scripture. He believed that Biblical principles were woven into the fabric of Western civilization and were essential for maintaining order, civility and prosperity.
"Every thinking man, when he thinks, realizes that the teachings of the Bible are so interwoven and intertwined with our whole civic and social life that it would be literally impossible for us to figure ourselves what that life would be if the standards were removed. We would lose almost all the standards by which we now judge both public and private morals; all the standards which we, with more or less resolution, strive to raise ourselves."Justice Thomas is absolutely right. We must return to an accurate understanding of the Establishment Clause and the Constitution so that the courts will stop acting as "theological commissions, judging the meaning of religious matters."
Americans are free to choose their religious expression (or none at all.) We need to remain free from the courts that would wish to suppress that freedom.