Saturday, December 24, 2005

How the Court's Ruling Affects Religion

As noted on Friday, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a courthouse the ability to hang a display which included the 'Ten Commandments', unanimously rejecting the ACLU's plea that the display violated the requirement for "separation of church and state". In its decision, the Court noted
the ACLU makes repeated reference to “the separation of church and state.” This extra-constitutional construct has grown tiresome. The First Amendment does not demand a wall of separation between church and state.
It is clear that this statement may be of concern to many, particularly those who have always understood separation of church and state to fall under the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. However, there is little to be concerned with. The Court is very careful in noting not only why this particular display is allowed, but reminds the constituents what would have resulted in this display not being allowed. While it is true that the concept of 'separation of church and state' is false in nature, the Establishment is clearly not; and any display which would violate that clause would still not be allowed.

The Court cites McReary, which gives an example where a court not only put up a display of the 'Ten Commandments', but put it up with no context, alone, and was celebrated with a speech from a priest regarding its religious importance. This, obviously, fell under the Establishment Clause, and was ordered to be taken down. The Court here notes that specifically because this display was intended for secular purposes; was provided with a context as to how it has helped form the legal system by which we abide; and because a reasonable person would not view it as an endorsement of religion, it was deemed acceptable.

This decision of the Court should be applauded: Not (only) because it removed the false misconception that church and state are on either side of a line that cannot be crossed, but because it defines just when they can meet - and when they cannot. It is highly important to people of all religions, and even to many who are not, that religion not be removed from the public sphere. Recognition of the role religion has played in our history is highly important, but even more important may be the recognition of the role religion may play in the future. Our government cannot endorse any religion or any religious view over any other; but that does not preclude us from allowing our religious ideals to dictate our views. To me, this is something that is especially important to us as religious Jews.

It is vitally important that government not endorse religion; it is equally important that government do its utmost to protect religion as well.

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  1. Which version of the Ten Commandments is included in the display? Because there are several different numberings of the Ten Commandments, you can't endorse one without picking one religion over another. So by your own standard this would be an endorsement of one religious view over another.

  2. As far as I know, the ACLU never argued that point in court (despite many opportunities to do so). In addition, I honestly don't think it would make a difference: The entire point of the ruling is that it is a secular display meant to give insight into how our legal system was formed. While there are different versions, they are all essentially the same in content, and their ideals helped to form our legal system - it wouldn't matter which version was used.