WASHINGTON (ABP) — Two different views of religion's role in government clashed inside and outside the Supreme Court March 2, as the justices heard arguments about Ten Commandments displays on public property.
Charles Hoffman, an activist from Kentucky, held aloft a sign outside the court building depicting the commandments. “These [judges] have a right to display the Ten Commandments as they see fit. They're the basis of our law,” he said. “When the founding fathers sat down to write the law, they started with the Ten Commandments.” If civil libertarians and religious minorities are offended by the monuments, Hoffman said, “they don't have to read them.”
But Barrett Furman, a member of American Atheists and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, had a different perspective. “If [the justices] say it's OK for the government to promote Christianity,” Furman said, “by default that makes everyone else a second-class citizen.”
The activists were present for the oral arguments in two cases — one from Kentucky and another from Texas — regarding whether such displays violate the First Amendment's ban on government endorsement of religious messages.
On the Supreme Court's front plaza, a large crowd of Commandment supporters gathered, led by Rob Schenck, president of Faith and Action in the Nation's Capital and leader of the Ten Commandments Project. Schenck prayed aloud, asking God to use these cases as a means to “restore our nation's Judeo-Christian heritage.”
He then announced that a truck carrying the Ten Commandments monument made famous by deposed Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore would soon pass by the court's steps. The truck was later denied access due to security concerns.
Moore placed the monument in the rotunda of the Alabama judicial building shortly after he took office, but a federal court ordered him to remove the monument in 2003. He was removed from office for refusing to obey that order. The U.S. Supreme Court later denied his appeal.
Schenck said he is optimistic about the court's decision in the two cases. “From what I heard in the questioning of the justices, a clear majority were disturbed by the growing hostility toward religion, religious symbols and religious expression in our public life,” Schenck said. “These were some of the most dramatic expressions of anxiety I've seen from the justices. So I'm guardedly predicting a 6-3 decision in favor of public displays of the Commandments.”
“It's clear to me the justices were saying there is a place for acknowledging religion's contribution to the society,” Schenck noted. “We shouldn't have a problem with that.”
Furman said he thinks it is permissible for governments to display the Ten Commandments as part of a display on the history of law, as in the Supreme Court building itself. However, he continued, the only purpose he can see for officials to feature the Protestant version of the commandments on government property is as a way to promote their personal faith.
“What I don't see is why they're so insecure in their belief that they need government to help them promote their own religion,” Furman said.