As Ten Commandments Come Down, Project Moses Heats Up
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — As Alabama state workers removed a Ten Commandments display from the rotunda of a state courthouse Aug. 27, a small nonprofit group in Kansas continued working to erect Ten Commandments memorials throughout the country.
It's called Project Moses, and it wants to establish Ten Commandments monuments in Catholic schools and parishes while raising some $5 million for a monument to the Decalogue in Washington, D.C.
“If courts yield to the ACLU and we are forced to remove the Ten Commandments from civic display, we shall make every effort to keep them in the public eye. Indeed, this is the rationale of Project Moses,” said Archbishop James Keleher of Kansas City, Kan., a member of the Project Moses National Board of Advisers.
In Montgomery, Ala., Christians have gathered in protest outside the state judicial building where Chief Justice Roy Moore refused a federal court order to remove a massive stone Ten Commandments display. Moore was suspended with pay for refusing the order.
The Thomas More Law Center, a Catholic public-interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has agreed to help the embattled chief justice bring his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Moore, a Baptist, believes the state “must acknowledge God, because our Constitution says our justice system is established upon God.”
“Justice Moore has a duty to obey his conscience and is performing a public service by highlighting the anti-religious bias of the federal courts under the fabricated legal metaphor of ‘the wall of separation between church and state,’” said Richard Thompson, chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center.
Project Moses was inspired by a similar Ten Commandments removal. Back in the summer of 2000, a Ten Commandments monument was removed from the Wyandotte County Courthouse lawn in Kansas City after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue over what it claimed was a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The ACLU and other organizations have long argued that displays of the Ten Commandments in the public square constitute an endorsement of a particular religion and therefore “establishment” by government.
“We believe it is a vocal minority that is trying to get removal of these displays,” said Eric Klingele, executive director of Project Moses. “They cannot get the values of the Ten Commandments out of our culture, however, so the removal is merely symbolic of their view of the Constitution.”
Critics of those who remove Ten Commandments monuments, such as Archbishop Keleher, say the ACLU's concerns reflect a naïve understanding of constitutional law.
“The Ten Commandments are the moral backbone of how a just and fair government is to treat its people and respect its foundation,” the archbishop said.
Archbishop Keleher said he's in full support of Moore.
“Unfortunately, he is fighting a losing battle because the courts of this country have so confused the meaning of the First Amendment that they construe any expression of our religious heritage to be ‘establishing state religion,'” the archbishop said.
Removal of the commandments from the Kansas City courthouse lawn so alarmed John Menghini, a member of Ascension Parish in Overland Park, Kan., that he tried to think of a constructive way to fight back. While contemplating his options, he realized that public displays of the Ten Commandments seem scarce even on Catholic-owned property.
“I talked to Archbishop Keleher,” Menghini told The Leaven, newspaper of the Kansas City Archdiocese. “I asked him, ‘Have I missed something in my Catholic education? Why don't we revere and display the Ten Commandments more prominently?'”
Archbishop Keleher told Menghini that the scarcity of Ten Commandments monuments at Catholic institutions was a cultural phenomenon — one that could be changed.
“He told me nothing in the canons of the Church prevent us from displaying the commandments more prominently,” recalled Menghini, chairman and chief executive officer of Veritas Partners, a venture capital firm, and a trustee of the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.
Menghini left his meeting with the archbishop with a conviction. He would devise a way to erect Ten Commandments displays, possibly as fast as the ACLU could remove them from the public square. He would display them at parishes, Catholic institutions and on highly visible private property where the ACLU and the courts have limited jurisdiction regarding free expression.
“Our purpose is not to fight the ACLU,” said Klingele, a former seminarian. “We're not the types to go down to Alabama and try to block the removal of that monument. We believe that God's law supersedes civil law, but we still must obey civil law and carry out God's work within those confines. Dred Scott was won in the courts, and that's where Roe v. Wade will get knocked down. Likewise, we're trying to maintain public displays of the Ten Commandments without violating any court orders.”
But it has been slow going. The first hurdle was finding a supplier of stone or metal Ten Commandments memorials.
“Literally, there is no company selling them,” Menghini told The Leaven. “We've had to actually contract for the manufacture of them. We're now making beautiful marble tablets that are being offered to churches and schools.”
The tablets range in size and price, the most expensive costing about $2,500. So far Project Moses has installed a 5-foot-4-inch tablet at St. Joseph's parish in downtown Topeka, Kan., and plans to install a tablet with the Ten Commandments on the front and the Beatitudes on the back in front of Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park.
“We've had about eight to 10 recent orders, but word is just now starting to get out about what we're doing,” Klingele said.
Organizers hope to have the national memorial ready for visitors in as little as two to five years. The monument would feature an 18- to 24-foot bronze statue of Moses and an enormous stone slate of the commandments.
Project Moses organizers have secured a major pledge from one donor but are still short of the $5 million needed for land, construction and the establishment of an endowment for maintenance.
Klingele said organizers have a location in mind, but they're keeping it a secret until the transaction is complete.
“The time has come to stand up to this assault on goodness and morality,” Menghini wrote in a statement announcing his plans for the national monument. “We have had enough of the relentless attacks on the Ten Commandments by those who, under the guise of freedom, seek to deny a large majority of our population their right to profess publicly their belief that the Ten Commandments are God's law. We Catholics must lead the way in ensuring that our constitutional rights to freedom of religion are respected and protected.”
If there can be a silver lining to the ACLU's annihilation of Ten Commandments displays on public property, it might just be the work of Project Moses, Archbishop Keleher said.
“The United States will greatly benefit from the national monument,” he said, “because it will be constructed in the nation's capitol, reminding thousands of visitors about the religious heritage of this nation.”
Wayne Laugesen is based in Boulder, Colorado.
- September 7-13, 2003