The principles that we promote abroad should be upheld at home

July 04, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - Just as you might expect, a group of finger-to-the-wind conservative congressmen have pledged to fight for legislation that would allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in courthouses around the country. Two recent Supreme Court decisions - one of which struck down such displays - has handed them a chance to seize the low ground on yet another controversial issue.

These are the same congressmen, no doubt, who roar with approval every time President Bush pledges that the United States will help Iraqis install their own version of Jeffersonian democracy - one that protects government critics, religious minorities and criminal defendants. So, if that sort of constitution is such a good idea for Iraqis, why isn't it a good idea for Americans?

You'd think that the brutal persecution of the Shiites under Saddam Hussein would remind Americans of the danger of mixing government and religion. The world is full of examples of nations whose antipathy toward one religion or another has resulted in everything from harassment to pogroms.

As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted bluntly in her concurrence with the Kentucky opinion, which struck down displays of the Ten Commandments in two of the state's courthouses: "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?"

Here's a truth that Justice O'Connor no doubt understands all too well: No matter how enthusiastically we tout "our freedoms," as Mr. Bush is fond of calling the principles of our pluralistic society, most Americans have scant appreciation for the Bill of Rights.

"It is true that many Americans find the Commandments in accord with their personal beliefs. But we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment," Justice O'Connor wrote.

The First Amendment, after all, was enacted to protect unpopular ideas.

Take flag-burning, an unpopular practice that many in Congress wish to prohibit. The House has already passed a bill calling for a constitutional amendment to ban that form of protest; the same proposal awaits a vote in the Senate, where it has come close to passage before.

Of course, most Americans rightly find the notion of burning Old Glory repugnant. But this proposed amendment is itself a desecration of the flag. That banner is revered - here and abroad - because it represents a country so tolerant of government criticism that it allows even the burning of its precious symbol, the Stars and Stripes. Without that broad tolerance of dissent - even flag-burning - the flag loses much of its meaning.

That tolerance is now so lacking in America that if the Bill of Rights were up for a vote today, it wouldn't stand a chance. The First Amendment right of free speech - which protects flag-burning, peace protesters and critics of Karl Rove - would go down in flames. So would its prohibition against a government establishment of religion. And I can't imagine that the rights of criminal defendants would fare much better.

Since we're sacrificing so many lives to promote our democratic ideals in the Middle East, you'd think we'd show a little more respect for them here at home.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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