January 2012 Church & State | Editorial

A controversy over a Ten Commandments display at the Dixie County, Fla., courthouse has many residents of that area all worked up.

A federal court has ordered the six-ton sectarian monument removed. Local church-goers responded with a pro-Commandments rally Nov. 27 that attracted 1,500 people. One woman waved a sign reading, “If you don’t like what our USA was built on, GET OUT.”

The same sentiment surfaced in previous comments made by some in the community. One man told a local TV station that people who don’t want to see the Commandments can enter the courthouse through the back door.

Why is this battle under way?

Many fundamentalist Christian activists have adopted the Commandments as a weapon in their crusade to remake America along theocratic lines. They apparently see no contradiction in using the language of hate and discord to support a religion whose founder preached peace and harmony.

The main reason why government should not post the Ten Commandments is that it violates the separation of church and state. It creates the impression that government has a preferred religion and that U.S. law is based on some type of sectarian code. This is not the case.

But there’s another reason why these displays are troubling: They breed intolerance and divisiveness.

One of the first duties of government is to treat people with fairness and equality. We should all be the same in the eyes of the state. When it comes to religion, government must treat everyone equally by refraining from adopting one faith over others.

When church-state separation breaks down, as it has in Dixie County, it’s not only the law that’s violated. Civility, decorum and interfaith harmony take a hit as well.

Americans hold many different views about religion. Our Constitution was designed to make it possible for us to live in peace, side by side, under a government that respects all of those perspectives but endorses none.

Dixie County has violated that principle, and the results are on full display in all their ugliness. We’ve seen the politics of “us vs. them” and a simplistic “love it or leave it” mentality. We’ve seen a community so deluded that it uses the Commandments, a religious code intended to ensure moral behavior, as a club to bash others.

The Decalogue monument violates the First Amendment, and that’s bad enough. The fact that it has spawned so much unpleasantness is just another reason why the display must go.