The church-state compromise

July 01, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Excuse me, folks, but what part of "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" don't y'all understand?

That question repeatedly came to mind as I waded into the 10 - 10! - opinions that make up the U.S. Supreme Court's twin hair-splitting decisions on public displays of the Ten Commandments.

My three-word summary: "Thou shalt. Not!"

The high court voted 5-4 to allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed on the Texas Capitol grounds but, by another 5-4 vote, not in two Kentucky county courthouses. The swing voter was Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who helped steer the court away from either a flat prohibition or a broad permission for Ten Commandments displays.

The result is a compromise that, like all great compromises, caused displeasure on both sides, but mostly at the extremes, which is a virtue in itself. Unfortunately, it also left enough questions unsettled to spark more confrontations to come.

In Kentucky, the court found that gold-framed copies of the Ten Commandments displayed in heavily trafficked parts of two county courthouses were a deliberate imposition of religion on others, especially after local officials modified the display to emphasize "America's Christian Heritage."

In Texas, by contrast, the Decalogue is etched into a 6-foot-tall monument that also shares space with monuments that highlight other themes in what the court found to be an allowable display of American heritage. It also helped Justice Breyer's view that the monument was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a private civic group, and has stood since 1961 without raising objections. That hardly sounds like a big insult to the Constitution's stance of neutrality toward religion.

That time element is significant. Had Justice Breyer swung the other way and called for the monument to be removed, it could have caused the removal of hundreds of others across the country, including the tablets held by Moses in the East Portico of the Supreme Court building.

But how long will this compromise last? A new justice can tip this delicate balance either way, a possibility that only fuels the passions of the all-or-nothing extremists on both sides.

If anything is clear in the high court's compromise, it was an effort to keep religious displays that have been around for a long time while discouraging any new ones.

The framers of the Constitution might well be rolling in their graves over the recent investigation of proselytizing by evangelical Christians at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. The investigating panel concluded that there was no religious discrimination at the academy, but there was "certainly insensitivity" by some cadets and staff members.

The insensitivity included a banner hung in the football locker room that pronounced players to be members of "Team Jesus Christ"; pressures on cadets to attend chapel; a Jewish cadet being told that the Holocaust was revenge for killing Jesus; and government e-mails that cited the New Testament.

Like the Air Force, the Supreme Court is trying to establish guidelines for the role religion can play in public life without trampling on anyone's personal views. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor opined, clarity is particularly important in these religiously turbulent times. She stressed:

"At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish. ... Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?"

Why, indeed?

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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