National Catholic Register


Ten Commandments’ Case Reignites Church-State Debate

BY Brett Decker

July 12, 1998 Issue | Posted 7/12/98 at 1:00 PM


WASHINGTON—Legislation introduced in the House of Representatives has reopened the debate about the separation of Church and state. Responding to political controversy at the state level across the country, Rep. Robert Aderholt (RAla.) has proposed a bill to protect religious observance in the public square.

The Ten Commandments Defense Act, introduced in the House June 25 purports to “protect the authority of states under the 10th Amendment to display the Ten Commandments in public places.” According to the sponsor, the right to display religious symbols in public is guaranteed by the freedom of religious expression guaranteed under the First and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties group, is fighting Aderholt's bill, alleging that it favors particular religions and undermines the power of courts to determine the constitutionality of such matters.

“The judiciary is not some sort of congressional lapdog,” said Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of the group. Americans United also argues that judicial precedent is on their side. In Harvey and Cunningham v. Cobb County, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Alabama) ordered the removal of the Ten Commandments from a courthouse wall in 1994. In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case filed by Alabama's Republican Gov. Fob James arguing that issues of Church-state relations are constitutionally vested in the state governments.

The purpose of Aderholt's legislation is to counter the national judicial trend banning religious symbols and prayers in schools, office buildings, and courthouses. Republican leaders held a Capitol Hill press conference June 25 to call attention to Mildred Rosario, a Bronx, N.Y., public school teacher who was fired for talking about God in response to students' questions about whether a recently deceased classmate was in heaven.

“Where are we going as a nation when a teacher who answers questions about God is fired within days?” asked Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Rep. Bob Riley (R-Ala.) added that “we need to let parents and educators know that ‘God’ is not a dirty word.”

In Alabama, the high-profile public fight about the Ten Commandments has embroiled the governor, the state's court system, Congress, and the federal judiciary in the controversy. Etowah County Circuit Court Judge Roy Moore has refused an order by Judge Charles Price of the same circuit and Federal District Judge Ira DeMent to remove a self-made depiction of “God's Law” from the wall behind his bench.

The American Civil Liberties Union brought suit against Moore nearly four years ago, arguing that “this is a matter of whether a state official can impose his religious attitudes on those who appear before him.” Moore contends that no party has ever complained about his display and noted that the Ten Commandments are also depicted on the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.

In response to Moore's battle, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 295-125 in support of a concurrent resolution to permit him to display the religious tenents in his courtroom. Passed last March 5, the resolution stated that “the Ten Commandments are a declaration of fundamental principles that are the cornerstones of a fair and just society … [they] set forth a code of moral conduct, observance of which is universally acknowledged to promote respect for our system of laws and the good of society.”

Gov. James, in a more militant approach, threatened to call on the Alabama National Guard to prevent federal agents from removing the Ten Commandments from Moore's courtroom.

“I will resist this by every legal and political means, with every ounce of strength I possess,” declared James.

The outspoken governor's stance sparked protests from civil liberties groups and drew fire from his primary challenger in the race for the Republican nomination in November's gubernatorial election. Despite allegations from his opponent, Winton Blount III, that James's support of religion is “backward” and making Alabama a “laughingstock,” the governor won June 30, garnering 56% of the vote to Blount's 44%.

The decisive victory underscores the statewide popularity of the governor's socially conservative policies. James has banned partial-birth abortions, outlawed homosexual marriages, supports school prayer, and attacks the scientific basis for evolution.

Lynn, of American's United, suggests James and other conservative legislators are simply using the religious devotion of Alabama voters for their own reelection bids.

“Thou shalt not play politics with religion,” demanded Lynn, claiming that “the Church-state separation protects religious diversity and equality by ensuring that government remain neutral on religious matters.”

Many experts disagree with this view of the original intent of the Constitution, however. Balint Vazsonyi, a famed concert pianist and Washington, D.C. historian who fled communist Hungary for the freedom of America in the 1950s, told the Register that “America's founders would be astonished to find that a nativity scene exhibited in the village square was viewed as ‘unconstitutional.’ They regarded their Christian religion as a given. The Bible was the common denominator among all those who came together to frame the supreme secular law of the land.”

“In the case of conflicting laws enacted by the two powers, the civil law prevails.” This proposition, concerning the relationship between Church and state, and its condemnation by Pope Pius IX are contained in the Syllabus of Errors of 1867. One hundred thirty years later, the law of the land and its relationship to the law of God is still being hotly debated in all branches of American government.

Brett Decker writes from Washington, D.C.