Legislators in Arkansas voted earlier this year to erect the Ten Commandments at the state capitol in Little Rock. This would seem to be a clear example of government showing favoritism to a religious code. But for now, other faiths shouldn’t assume they’ll get the same treatment.
Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, offered to give the state a statue of Lord Hanuman, a popular Hindu deity often described as a monkey god. The group would have covered all of the costs to create, transport and erect the statue.
“If permitted, we planned to make it big and weatherproof,” Zed wrote in a statement explaining the project. “Besides honoring the Arkansas Hindus, this statue would raise awareness of Arkansans about Hinduism, oldest and third-largest religion of the world with about one billion adherents and a rich philosophical thought.”
But don’t look for Hanuman in Little Rock anytime soon. State officials were quick to deny the request. The Associated Press reported that earlier this month the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office told Zed to either ask the General Assembly for permission or apply to the Arkansas State Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission.
Hmmm. I see a buck being furiously passed.
Although the Ten Commandments are found in the Old Testament, their public display at the seat of government is almost always championed these days by fundamentalist Christians. Their goal seems to be to imply that U.S. law has religious underpinnings. This is bad law and bad history.
It also runs afoul of the First Amendment. Thus, Arkansas lawmakers could spare everyone a lot of time and money by removing the Ten Commandments monument right now. The law is not on their side here.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings concerning Ten Commandments displays that provide importance guidance. Officials in Arkansas need to read these opinions.
In the first case, Van Orden v. Perry, the court permitted the display of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state capitol in Austin, Texas, in part because the Decalogue was only one of 40 monuments and historical markers on the capitol grounds.
The second case, McCreary County v. ALCU, concerned a Ten Commandments display erected alone in two Kentucky courthouses in much more recent times. The court ruled that the displays had the effect of endorsing religion.
So, government officials can display the Ten Commandments – if they’re willing to allow other types of markers and symbols in the area. For a taste of how this can play out, I direct you to the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, where officials decided last year to allow private groups to display signs and symbols in December to mark the holidays.
They wanted a nativity scene, which they got. They also got a menorah, and they were fine with that. They were less excited about the Festivus pole, the depiction of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the diorama from the Satanic Temple.
But, you know, free speech and equal access for all mean just that. I suspect that legislators in Arkansas aren’t truly interested is seeing or hearing other points of view when it comes to religion, but the courts may have other ideas about that.
Obviously Americans United would prefer that there be no sectarian symbols and religious codes on government property. But if legislators insist on allowing them, they need to acknowledge diversity and not extend special treatment to the Ten Commandments because they believe (incorrectly) that it is the font of all U.S. law.
In this particular case, it would be helpful for the people of Arkansas to learn that there are more religions and philosophies out there than the handful of fundamentalist Christian denominations that so often try to monopolize the public square. Privately funded displays that educate about Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Humanism, Wicca, etc. might not be a bad idea – although I doubt that’s what state lawmakers had in mind when they voted to erect the Decalogue.
So I’d urge Zed to keep pushing for the statue and to even consult with some attorneys. Lord Hanuman, I’ve read online, embodies the qualities of strength and determination. Those same features – augmented by some good old-fashioned legal work – may help him find a home in Little Rock.