The nation waited anxiously for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on a recent slate of cases involving public displays of the Ten Commandments. It was hoped that the court would finally render a decision that would put to rest, one way or the other, the controversy surrounding public displays of religious Scripture and symbols.
The court appeared to act deliberately in selecting which among the many public display cases they would review. The ones chosen seemed to have just the right qualities needed for the court to clarify how the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment applies to religious displays.
However, if that was what they were hoping to accomplish, it was an exercise in futility. The matter is far from settled, and the issues involved in the debate far from resolved. When the justices announced their decision last week, both sides of the debate were able to declare defeat and victory at the same.
One of the decisions should not have been a surprise to anyone who has watched this court over the past few years. There has been a consistent 5-4 split over religious issues, with the majority favoring a fairly strict separation of church and state.
That stance was evident in the case McCreary County vs. ACLU, which involved two court houses in Kentucky with Ten Commandment displays. The Court ruled 5-4 that the displays in question did in fact constitute a religious endorsement. Justice David Souter, writing for the majority argued that the Kentucky displays were clear efforts to promote a particular religious faith.
In what was something of a surprise, however, in the case of Van Orden vs. Perry, the high court ruled that a Ten Commandment display on the grounds of the state capitol building in Austin, Texas was not a violation of the Establishment Clause. The 6-foot-high granite monument was among nearly 40 monuments and historical markers spread across 22 aces in front of the capitol. In another 5-4 decision the court held that the monument was acceptable because it accomplished a secular rather than religious purpose.
So, this is where we have come. If you want to have a Ten Commandments display that will pass muster with the court, simply design a visual presentation that promotes some secular or historical purpose. In other words, construct a setting that empties Scripture of the very thing that makes it unique. And rest assured that just such a design is on a drawing board somewhere right now.
Of course we could always just change the composition of the court—a plan that is also on the drawing board right now. A new court with right thinking judges would allow promoters to decorate court houses and school houses with all the Scripture they can carve onto granite.
At the end of the day, however, it is Scripture that suffers from all this. The Bible is not a magic good luck charm that brings good fortune because it’s on display. The Bible is not a footnote to American history, something that merely contributed the establishment of our legal system. And a statue of the Bible is not the way to acknowledge God.
If we would take time to read the book rather than trying to build monuments to it we would find that the way to honor God is by loving kindness, doing justice, and walking humbly with God.
But I guess a monument is easier.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.