N.C. case shows nation's slide into secularism

August 09, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The constitutional crisis began 66 years ago in North Carolina, but no one noticed. However, recently Richard Suhre (rhymes with surly) went ballistic and to court.

In 1932 Haywood County, N.C., built a courthouse that is now listed, in the National Register of Historic Places, among "the significant physical evidences of our national patrimony." Carved into the wall of one courtroom are two plaques listing 10 commandments. Mr. Suhre, who advertises his atheism, lost a case in that courtroom and smolders with suspicion that the plaques disposed the jury against him.

But the list of admonitions on the plaques, which flank a bas-relief of Lady Justice, may not be "the" Ten Commandments. That is a question a judge must soon answer in deciding whether since 1932 Haywood County has been violating the First Amendment by fostering the establishment of religion.

This may seem to be just another skirmish along a familiar blurry border of First Amendment law. But Haywood County's defense did not just consist of splitting the usual constitutional hairs about the three-pronged test the Supreme Court concocted in 1971 for deciding what activities that bring government into contact with religion are constitutional.

By that test, permissible activity must have a secular purpose, must have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and must not foster excessive entanglement of government with religion. This formula looked clever until the justices were asked to declare unconstitutional the chaplain of Nebraska's Legislature.

They flinched, remembering that the first Congress, which drafted the First Amendment, hired a chaplain. So the court fell back to asking if disputed activities "endorsed" religion.

Expert testimony

Haywood County addressed this criterion by importing an expert witness to say that the courtroom commandments are not really religious. Haywood's commandments say:

"Thou shalt have no other God before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Honor thy father and thy mother. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not covet."

Haywood's expert, Dr. Walter Harrelson, former dean of the divinity schools at the University of Chicago and Vanderbilt, said the words on the courtroom plaques "are not the Ten Commandments of any known religion." This is because they "do not comport with the language of" the Torah, the King James or New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, or the commandments as compiled by Augustine and others, or as "kept by Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian or Reformed Christian religions."

Rather, Mr. Harrelson testified, the courtroom plaques contain one of many "popular renditions" of the commandments. Such renditions are by now "inherently secular" and "Americanized" as "a familiar constituent of this nation's legal and moral heritage." Granted, they "might seem at first blush" to have "religious connotations." However, "their prevalence over time has caused them to evolve into a nonreligious, moral framework for a secular society."

Mr. Harrelson said the first commandment, which "does not forbid atheism," actually means only, "Do not have more than a single ultimate allegiance." The second nowadays means, "Do not give ultimate loyalty to any earthly reality." The fourth just means, "Do not treat with contempt the times set aside for rest."

The county noted that on the wall frieze in the U.S. Supreme Court, behind where the chief justice sits, there is a tablet bearing the Roman numerals I through X. The Office of the Curator of the Court insists that this merely "symbolizes early written laws," perhaps the Bill of Rights.

In God we trust

The county insisted that its commandments are like the phrases "In God We Trust" on coins (Mark Twain: "God was left out of the Constitution but was furnished a front seat on the coins of the country"), and "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and "so help me, God" in oaths, and "God save this honorable court." In all these expressions, the county argued that "religious connotations have become attenuated over time." That is, such religious expression by government is permissible because familiarity breeds innocuousness and hence indifference.

Defenders of religion have been reduced to such cringing arguments because the Supreme Court, which in 1952 said "we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being," has made a fetish out of scrubbing religion from the public square. Such arguments may be necessary to enable Haywood County to keep its commandments. But victories won with such arguments actually represent surrender to secularism.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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