Trouble is brewing down in Georgia, as state lawmakers recently approved a measure that would allow a granite Ten Commandments monument to be displayed outside the state capitol.
States frequently try to erect these sorts of overtly religious displays on public property, and there doesn’t appear to be anything unique about this latest Decalogue – except it would also include a well-known passage from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Apparently the Ten Commandments alone were not enough to make the point that the state of Georgia wants to endorse religion, so the famous passage about “their Creator” was thrown in for good measure.
The bill, HB 702, passed the Georgia Senate yesterday. Since it had already passed the state House of Representatives, it’s only a Gov. Nathan Deal signature away from becoming law.
WSB Radio reported that the monument will be privately financed, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. At least one lawmaker already expressed reservation about the monument.
“It is possible that HB 702, as it currently exists, would not survive an Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment] challenge,” said Senate Minority Leader Steven Henson (D-Tucker).
Henson is right – although the law in this area is a little complicated. Back in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a 5-4 vote in the case of Van Orden v. Perry that a Ten Commandments monument at the Texas state capitol was constitutional mainly because it had been there since 1961. But at the same time, the high court in McCreary County v. ACLU struck down more recent displays in three Kentucky counties.
Clearly, a “historical precedent” argument would not apply to the Georgia monument. The Kentucky ruling might apply.
There is also a case currently under review in New Mexico that could have a different outcome. A Decalogue display outside the Bloomfield city hall is under fire from two residents who believe the monument violates their rights.
“In my opinion, it says that anybody who doesn’t agree with this monument on city grounds is an outsider,” said Jane Felix, the spiritual leader of a Wiccan group in the Bloomfield area, during testimony recently before the U.S. District Court of New Mexico. “It has no place on city hall property.”
The city, which is represented by the Arizona-based Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), has argued that the display was privately financed and that city residents are legally permitted “to erect historical monuments of their choosing” thanks to a 2007 law.
If that’s true, and Felix loses her case, let’s hope she attempts to put up a Wiccan display. The ADF probably won’t be as eager to defend her rights, then.
Despite what the Religious Right and its allies will tell you, it’s important to remember that the Ten Commandments are not the basis for the U.S. Constitution. After all, it’s still legal to covet whatever you want.
It’s also important to note that the Declaration of Independence is a wonderful and important document, but it’s basically an 18th century press release to the world announcing our country’s intent to be done with England. It has no legal authority. The Religious Right loves it purely because it makes a reference to a deistic god, a reference lacking in the Constitution.
Since so many commandments have no secular counterpart in U.S. law, a Decalogue display can only be viewed as a religious symbol. And when it’s found on government-owned property, it’s hard to see that symbol as anything but state-sponsored. While some of these displays have received court approval, all are problematic and many lead to lawsuits. It would thus be best to leave the Ten Commandments where they belong: in houses of worship.