Idealistic vision becomes focus of church, state fight

Fraternal group began Commandments effort as ethical guide to young

March 01, 2005|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - The plain red neon "FOE" sign above the door on East Patrick Street conveys retro aesthetic. Nothing in the wood-panel and linoleum decor inside approaches chic or even hints of an upgrade since perhaps the Nixon years.

It's unlikely anyone joins the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie No. 1067 for the reflected glory of designer surroundings.

The Eagles would have you mark their trail in Little League teams sponsored, fruit baskets delivered to elderly people, money in the pockets of the families of members who die on the job, sums conveyed to any number of causes: hospice care, research on cancer, diabetes, kidney and heart disease. The national organization raises money to help abused children and keep kids out of youth gangs.

Lately the group, which has about 1,700 chapters, made news for its association with granite monuments of the Ten Commandments scattered around the country. Some of those monuments, donated by the Eagles to cities and towns over several decades, still stand on government property, and have as a result become the subject of lawsuits alleging violations of First Amendment restraints on government involvement in religion.

Religion not stressed

The Eagles are not exactly religious in their pursuits, although they do sponsor a "God, Flag and Country" public speaking competition for young people. There's also the rule that prospective members must be asked in their brief interview if they believe in a "Supreme Being," but they are not pressed to explain how they understand that term. Those who answer "no" will be politely shown the door.

"You don't see us in the papers about religion or anything else," said Bill Burall of Frederick, a member of the local chapter's board of trustees and a club member for more than 20 years. "We just ask about a Supreme Being and leave it at that. Nobody's criticized as to what you belong to."

He was sitting at a table recently with the four other trustees and the president of the Frederick chapter, which has 450 regular members and about 200 in the women's auxiliary. The social room on the second floor was set up for the next night's bingo. The disco ball in the ceiling was still, but it might spin for weekly dances, or the annual Halloween or New Year's Eve party.

The conservative "God, Flag and Country" profile belies the organization's origins, which began in the world of Washington state theater owners, stagehands, actors and playwrights at the turn of the 20th century. In the early days, the Eagles pursued causes that by today's standards would be considered leftist.

In one of their brochures, three of the Eagles' proudest achievements are associated with the two most socially progressive presidents of the modern era, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. The presidents recognized the Eagles for their activism in Social Security and Medicare and against workplace age discrimination by giving the group the pens used to sign the federal legislation into law.

Historical quirk

That champions of social justice promoted a Ten Commandments campaign now embraced by religious conservatives is a historical quirk. The Commandments monuments program at the start appears not to have been a form of religious instruction in a strict sense.

A club member named E. J. Ruegemer evidently hatched the idea when he was sitting as a juvenile court judge in Minnesota in 1946. While considering the sentence for a teen-ager who had stolen a car and struck someone with it, the judge learned that the young man knew nothing of the Ten Commandments. Alarmed, the judge not only recommended them to the youth, but he later successfully pitched the Eagles with the idea of distributing framed copies of the Commandments to courthouses as a handy ethical code for young people.

Cecil B. DeMille

Movie director Cecil B. DeMille somehow got wind of this years later while he was making The Ten Commandments. According to a history of the Eagles monument program compiled by Sue A. Hoffman of Auburn, Wash., DeMille and Ruegemer spoke by phone and agreed to ramp things up by creating monuments in stone, as God presented them to Moses.

The nature of DeMille's contribution to the monuments campaign is not quite clear, but the Eagles certainly got a temporary boost in star power after the movie opened in the fall of 1956. Charlton Heston (Moses), Yul Brynner (Rameses), and Martha Scott (Moses' mother, Yochabel), appeared at a few monument unveilings.

As early as 1958, the Eagles received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union objecting to the Ten Commandments program as a breach of church-state separation. The Feb. 18, 1958, letter from ACLU Secretary Donald G. Paterson does not threaten legal action, but it does "respectfully suggest" that the whole production be moved to private property.

Eagles official F. C. Schroeder responded a week later, emphasizing the efforts to reconcile different faiths' versions of the Ten Commandments and to include Christian and Jewish symbols "so that no group could possibly be offended."

Still, they were. And are.

Public controversy

In 2001, while Hoffman was out researching Eagles' monuments - she has documented 145 and still counting - she stopped in Minnesota to visit Judge Ruegemer, who was 99 and would live another three years. They talked about how the monuments program was making news as a public controversy.

"It saddened him," said Hoffman, "because everything was so taken out of context. ... They were only trying to do something nice."

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