The U.S. Supreme Court this week voted both for and against government involvement in religion, and people on both sides of the issue are trying to sort it all out.
In a Texas case, the court essentially ruled that a religious marker which has stood without public objection for long enough gains the right to stay. It served as a warning about the dangers of silence. At issue was a Ten Commandments marker of the kind that dot the nation. Such markers were donated to governments across the nation by Eagles Lodges, a campaign originally suggested by Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille, who was then filming The Ten Commandments. (When DeMille’s movie was released in 1957, “Eagles Night” showings were held around the country.)
In two Kentucky cases, the court said that religious markers hung on the walls of two county courthouses would have to come down because there was clear evidence of religious purpose. As the case unfolded and went up through various appeals, the county governments kept changing the displays to conceal their original nature, but the Supreme Court said it wasn’t enough.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s stance was something of a surprise, and her opinion hinted that events since Sept. 11 might be responsible. In the Kentucky case, she wrote, “At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate. … Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”
It was a position that resonated with Reno minister William Chrystal of the First Congregational Church, whose son Philip is stationed with the Army in Iraq. In fact, Chrystal wishes the court had been more firm.
“The church is the place to learn about religion. … We know that the United States has deep religious roots. And studying history is a far better way—and a more constitutional one—to understand this than is the presence of religious monuments in public squares. … The Supreme Court, by distinguishing between ‘historical’ expressions and ‘religious’ manifestations, has only further muddied the water, and further strife is doubtless inevitable. Too bad. Religion can stand on its own without governmental ‘help.’ Let the two, for the sake of both, remain as separate as possible.”
But Justice Antonin Scalia was caustic, saying that Sept. 11 proved the need for government to sanction religion: “And of course the First Amendment itself accords religion (and no other manner of belief) special constitutional protection. … Those responsible for the adoption of the religion clauses [in the U.S. Constitution] would surely regard it as a bitter irony that the religious values they designed those clauses to protect have now become so distasteful to this court that if they constitute anything more than a subordinate motive for government action, they will invalidate it.”
But the difficulty involved in figuring out exactly what the court was saying in the two religion cases is that there were 10 different opinions written by various justices, with shifting and parsing all over the place. The court will have an opportunity to clarify its position next Tuesday, when it is expected to rule on a case challenging the recitation of a Christian prayer at the start of town council meetings in a small South Carolina town.