(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Ten Commandments
As I mentioned earlier in the week, today was Ten Commandments day at the Supreme Court. How much does I personally care about the issue? Some, but not a whole whole lot. But I come closer to caring a whole whole lot -- to seeing this as an important battle in the effort to make sure that government remains distinct from religion -- when I read about what Justice Scalia said at the argument. I see it reported the same way in two different places, and so I trust the reporting: that his take on the big Texas 10 Commandments monument was that it was "a symbol of the fact that government derives its authority from God," and that this is a good thing (or at least a constitutionally-acceptable thing). Here I was thinking that people didn't necessarily agree on whether the existence of God is a "fact," and that the Government wasn't supposed to take sides in that debate.

But there is, at least, this: that having staked out that position, Justice Scalia can't very well sign on to an opinion saying that the posting of the Commandments or the construction of a Commandments monument is merely some sort of secular historical blah blah blah. I have more intellectual respect for arguments in favor of some far-out minority view of the meaning of the Establishment Clause, than for arguments that try to pave the way for public displays of religious symbolism by pretending that it isn't really religious symbolism.

posted by sam 4:06 PM 8 comments


From the MSNBC link: "The exact version of the Ten Commandments — Protestant, Jewish or otherwise — was unimportant, Scalia said, opining that “probably 90 percent of the American people believe in the Ten Commandments and 85 percent couldn’t tell you what the ten are.”Even though he thinks that the Ten Commandments are "a symbol of the fact that government derives its authority from God," it doesn't matter which those commandments are, because probably 85% can't tell you anyways. So the authority of the Ten Commandments spring from the 90% who incoherently believe in the concept of the Ten Commandments?


By Blogger Peatey, at 10:28 PM  

I strongly agree that a separation from church and state needs to exist. However I can't believe where the line in the sand has been drawn. The question of whether a large bronze plaque that no one reads constitutes endorsement of religion is the wrong question. It's obvious that it is an endorsement, and one I see nothing wrong with. Like it or not there is a long history of religious beliefs incorporated into the very founding of our government. To ignore that fact and to also ignore the fact that a huge majority of this country agrees with the basic concept of those beliefs is a futile and ridiculous exercise. The real question should be is it an unreasonable endorsement.

By Blogger cmbnyclib, at 11:06 AM  

"unreasonable endorsement"? That sounds very weird to me. If it's appropriate for the government to be in the religious sphere at all, it's very hard for me to see how one could say that it should be a little bit in the religious sphere but not a lot. After all, for those who believe that God exists, this is a hugely important fact, and a fact that must/should be taken seriously in everything that they do. I would think it mighty strange if somebody said, "I believe in the existence of a God who judges our actions, but I don't really care about it that much, or let it guide my actions." But that's the position that the Government is in, if a "little bit" of governmental endorsement of religion is ok but "too much" is not. Better -- not to mention more consistent with the First Amendment -- to recognize that the Government has no business taking a position on God at all.

By Blogger sam, at 11:27 AM  

I understand your argument Sam but the fact remains the government already is "a little bit in the religious sphere" here is a short list just off the top of my head;
Prayer at the beginning of many state legislative sessions,
“In God We Trust”- on our money,
“One Nation Under God”- Pledge of Allegiance.
Chaplains in the military
As I understand it there is a painting of Moses and the Ten Commandments hanging in the Supreme Court building. What are these if not an endorsement of god/religion?
What makes one of these endorsements okay and another not? Some invisible line of separation between church and state that only the Supreme Court can see? The problem you point out "little bit" versus "too much" is one I agree with and truthfully don't see a solution to. But you cannot ignore the fact that we are already a little bit in and at times past have been a lot in. So if we are already a little in do we get all out? I don’t think this would ever happen remember the outcry when the line about god in the Pledge of Allegiance was deemed unconstitutional. I then come back to the idea of a reasonable endorsement one that takes into effect historical, popular, and constitutional views.

Thanks for the debate

By Blogger cmbnyclib, at 3:59 PM  

I have a few comments on what cmbnyclib said.

1. cmbnyclib said: "Like it or not there is a long history of religious beliefs incorporated into the very founding of our government."
Proof please? This statement is vague enough that it is impossible to prove untrue. But the current conception of our nation being founded as a Christian nation is simply wrong. My guess is that you are misinformed on this issue. Jefferson wasn't a Christian, Washington probably wasn't, etc. Read Article XI of the Treaty of Tripoli - it states explicitly that we are not a Christian nation. Read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Founding Fathers were Deists for the most part.

2. cmbnyclib said: "The real question should be is it an unreasonable endorsement." Why? Have you read the First Amendment recently? It states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...." Where is there any mention of reasonableness? Recall that this is a constitutional question, not a question of what you wish the Constitution said.

3. Your examples of current government dabblings in religious references are demonstrative of your lack of information on this subject (see point 1 above). First of all, these could all potentially be unconstitutional. Second, "In God We Trust" on our money is a relatively recent phenomena, and is the "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Also note that these don't endorse any particular God, so they may pass constitutional muster anyway. And I fail to see how having chaplains in our military is at all relevant to the discussion.

4. cmbnyclib said: "As I understand it there is a painting of Moses and the Ten Commandments hanging in the Supreme Court building. What are these if not an endorsement of god/religion?" Have you not heard of a thing called "art"? This is exactly where the line should be drawn! If it's art, it's okay; if it's not art, not okay.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:06 PM  

After reading the scotusblog link, it’s even more shocking to think Scalia could sign onto an argument that says, “The minority should be tolerant of the majority expressing its belief that this government comes from God.” Worse, it appears that O’Connor is telling them (the Christian Right), come back when you get it right. Meaning, use the logic she spelled out in Allegheny v. Pittsburgh, in which she wrote:

…in my view, acknowledgments such as the legislative prayers upheld in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), and the printing of "In God We Trust" on our coins serve the secular purposes of "solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society."

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:01 PM  

a long history of religious beliefs incorporated into the very founding of our government.That's not true. And the 'examples' you cite are anomolies. The gvt. shouldn't be in the business of endorsing religion at all. That's why we have the First Amendment.

By Blogger Swan, at 3:45 PM  

If by "God" in, "...government derives its authority from God...", Scalia meant "the people", then I agree with him.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:14 AM  

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