Monday, August 25, 2003

Establishment of religion: Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore defends his position in the WSJ today. He is determined that his decision to place a Ten Commandments monument in the courthouse is defensible.
We must acknowledge God in the public sector because the state constitution explicitly requires us to do so. The Alabama Constitution specifically invokes "the favor and guidance of Almighty God" as the basis for our laws and justice system. As the chief justice of the state's supreme court I am entrusted with the sacred duty to uphold the state's constitution. I have taken an oath before God and man to do such, and I will not waver from that commitment.
Lovely. And the constitutionality question?
The First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." It does not take a constitutional scholar to recognize that I am not Congress, and no law has been passed. Nevertheless, Judge Thompson's order states that the acknowledgment of God crosses the line between the permissible and the impermissible and that to acknowledge God is to violate the Constitution.
I have a few thoughts. First, I love how Amendment 1 is written, with that slight ambiguity that makes modernist interpreters do backflips to makes it read to their advantage. There is no "Chinese Wall" between Church and State, no "separation" as such. There is no reason that religion should not have it's legitimate place in social discourse, but it legal or political. If the Gospels or the Talmud or the Koran is what informs your judgement and guides your moral compass, so be it. By the same token, if the writings or Susan Sontag, the movies of Michael Moore, or the work of Milton Friedman are your intellectual touchstones, that's great too. Politicians, and judges, shouldn't be discounted because of religious convictions, though they shouldn't get bonus piints either. To place the emphasis on a candidate's religion (or membership in another controversial but legitimate group, like PETA) is to say that we can't take issue with one's actual judgements or decisions, so we'll attack what we believe motivates or informs the same. This is lazy and not productive. Religion is one aspect of a person's character, and it's frequently a label that's applied cheaply and inaccurately. Intelligent discourse demands more.

That said, I think Judge Moore is on thin ice. The Ten Commandments is not attributed to a generic g-o-d, a "higher power." It's the central teaching of a particular religion, Christianity, and plopping them down in the foyer comes awfully close to "establishment," even if no law has been passed. And even if I'm wrong legally, I think he'll face a hard time just because of his lack of humility. Something I think God commands of his subjects.

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