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Today’s SojoMail

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“The Supreme Court got it right on religion”
by David Batstone

This week the Supreme Court issued two controversial judgments on the display of religious monuments in public places. The two 5-4 rulings allowed the Ten Commandments to remain as part of an exhibit of monuments on the grounds of the Texas statehouse but barred postings of the same biblical text in two Kentucky courthouses.

The Supreme Court baffles me at the moment. At least the unpredictability of its judgments makes for highly suspenseful drama. Regardless, the majority opinion got it right this week. I readily admit to my detractors that we are dealing in shades of gray here. What I would like to draw attention to is the intention behind each decision.

The justices clearly affirmed the valuable contribution that religion makes to civic life. The Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol is one of 17 monuments and 21 historical markers that adorn a public park that envelopes the Capitol. Symbolically, the exhibit celebrates that religion has shaped American history and merits a place smack-dab in the middle of the public square.

“Of course, the Ten Commandments are religious,” Chief Justice Rehnquist noted in his comments bolstering the majority opinion. He then added the linchpin: “Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause.”

Some secularists are bent on stripping the role of religion in public life, of course. But they are dead wrong when they take the “separation of church and state” to mean that people of faith should keep their religious sentiments hidden away in the privacy of a closet in their home.

No Christian, Jew, Muslim, or other person of faith should feel coerced to suppress their faith in the workplace, at the social security administration office, or at school. Get over it, secularists, “G–” has never been a taboo subject in American society and never will be. People are free to show up in public wearing their faith on their sleeves.

The Supreme Court ruling against the Kentucky monuments had a quite different intention. In Kentucky, monuments displaying the Ten Commandments were posted alone by orders of county governments. They added secular documents only after a suit was filed – evidence that the government’s motivation was religious, the Court said.

The key question in each case hinged on whether the display of religious monuments violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against an official “establishment” of religion. The state, in other words, cannot identify itself with a particular religion. American legal tradition thereby protects the integrity of citizens to pursue their own religious traditions without the interference of the state.

Many Christian conservatives interpreted the Kentucky decision as yet another expression of hostility to their faith, and a deviation from the intent of the Constitution’s framers. They operate under the assumption that “America is a Christian nation.” But they are as wrongheaded as the secularists. I, for one, don’t want the government to start speaking for God or claiming God’s blessing, even if it is my faith tradition being referenced. Why would any devout Christian or Jew want a county courthouse to equate its application of law to the deep moral justice that the Ten Commandments demands?

In sum, the intention of the Court’s decision was to undergird the free expression of religion, yet prevent the association of the state with a sole religion. Lest we lose ourselves in the application of law to these two particular cases, can we at least come to agreement regarding the importance of this distinction for American civic life?