In the week before Christmas a federal appeals court delivered the folks of Mercer County, Ky., a dubious present. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a display of the Ten Commandments featured in the county courthouse since 2001 could remain—it did not violate the U.S. Constitution.
What makes this case worth pondering for a moment is that the exact same array of items on display in McCreary County, Ky., was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.
In that case, the justices noted that the Ten Commandments had originally been displayed alone. The historical documents were added only after the Commandments were challenged. This led a majority of the justices on the high court to rule that the intent in McCreary County was clearly to promote Christianity.
In Mercer County, however, all the items in the display were set up at the same time. A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit found that since the Commandments were displayed with other historical documents, like the Declaration of Independence and the words to the “Star Spangled Banner,” that the display served a historical purpose. And since the purpose of the display was secular rather than sacred, it did not constitute an establishment of religion.
We will have to wait and see if this case makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court and if it does how the justices will decide. In the mean time, people of faith, and particularly people who read and believe the Bible, might want to consider the implications of this decision.
In my tradition the Bible is referred to as the “word of God.” It is considered the authority for all religious truth and is the guide for worship and for daily living. This belief was been summed up in a popular bumper sticker from a few years back. It read, “God said it, I believe it; that settles it.”
Whether you are willing to embrace the bumper sticker or not, it does convey how many Christians view the Bible.
We even have a special way of describing this important book. It is called the “Holy Bible,” a phrase that certainly elevates Scripture to a level above all other printed texts. And we call it “sacred,” which means for believers that the Bible transcends everyday reality and occupies a special, set apart place.
So here is my question. If this is the way many people of faith regard the Bible, why celebrate a court decision that relegates the Bible to a mere historical document? After all, even though the Declaration of Independence is vitally important, and the words to the “Star Spangled Banner” are inspiring words, does either of them rise to the level of a Holy Bible?
Isn’t there a danger that by making a portion of the Bible merely a part of American history that we diminish its importance? If all these documents have equal value and promote a secular purpose, doesn’t that make it hard to claim that the Bible is sacred?
Even if, somewhere down the road, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that displays like this are legal, Christians would be wise to oppose them. Scripture displayed as a part of an historical array does not advance the teaching of the Bible but instead reduces the Bible to a mere footnote in American history. If the Bible is what we say it is, it will be here long after America is gone.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.