Roy Moore and the Ten Commandments

By Mac Diva of Portland, Oregon. Mac is a pseudonym for a real-life person who works in journalism and law. Her blog can be found at macaronies.blogspot.com.

Roy mooreRoy Moore, the former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, is the kind of person I like to keep an eye on. He is always up to something. Moore garnered the national spotlight when he installed a huge granite statue of the Ten Commandments in the state law building. The ensuing legal battle over establishment of religion resulted in removal of Roy's Rock from the premises and removal of Roy from office. Since turning down an opportunity to run for president for the theocratic Constitution Party, Moore has been touring the country promoting his views to the faithful.

When people think of Roy Moore, they understandably also think of the Bible Belt, the Southern region the Alabaman is so representative of. But, Christian fundamentalists are not limited to any one part of the United States. Moore was honored in Oregon earlier this year. He was the guest of honor at a "Profiles in Courage" banquet in February, sponsored by the state's Constitution Party.

Christian News Northwest promoted the event.

"Judge Moore and the issues he has raised are certainly the kind of things Christians are interested in," said Bob Ekstrom of Scappoose, chair of the Constitution Party of Oregon. "He's shown courage because he hasn't caved in at all."
... While in Alabama on other business this past fall, Ekstrom saw the monument and witnessed the rallies and huge media attention that surrounded Moore just prior to his ouster. "It really was not a religious monument," said Ekstrom. "It was a historical, educational monument."

The Constitution Party is rooted in the third party former Alabama Gov. George Wallace formed to seek the presidency in 1968. In its current form, it is dominated by 'Christian theocrats,' people who believe the country should be run by Christians, and, favor what they consider Christian values. They say the founders never intended that there be a wall between and church and state. The party's presidential candidate, Michael Peroutka, won 4,945 votes in Oregon Nov. 2.

Recently, as a member of the Foundation for Moral Law, Moore filed a brief in favor of installing religious symbols on government property. The case being appealed is American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky v. McCreary County, Kentucky (2003). The issue is whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed on government property if other documents are displayed with them.

The foundation's argument is a simple one.

Two federal courts have held that Ten Commandments displays in McCreary and Pulaski County courthouses in Kentucky violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. When the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, Chief Justice Moore and the Foundation decided to argue that acknowledging God through displaying the Ten Commandments does not violate the First Amendment.
In the "friend of the court" brief (called an amicus curiae brief), Chief Justice Moore and the Foundation argued to the Supreme Court that because judges swear an oath to support the written Constitution, the Court should look at the words in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to determine whether the Ten Commandments displays are constitutional. The Establishment Clause says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." By putting up Ten Commandments in their courthouses, the Foundation argued, the Kentucky courthouses were simply not making a law respecting an establishment of religion. The Foundation urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the lower courts and hold that the Ten Commandments are a constitutionally permissible manner of acknowledging God in our public places.

Too simple. The brief misses much of the meaning of the Establishment Clause. But, you will not learn anything about that at the Foundation's site. No information about opposing arguments is presented there. Even the courts' decisions are excluded.

The foundation's nitpicking over the word 'law' is particularly disingenious. Gestures by government have the impact of law. If religious symbols are displayed in, say, courtrooms, that creates the impression that a state and national judicial system supports Christianity. Equally baffling is its assertion that "acknowledging God in our public places" is not what the Establishment Clause is concerned with.

According to the former judge, all law is based on a Christian God. Specifically, his interpretation of a Christian God. Therefore, gestures that support his interpretation of a Christian God are fully acceptable. They include displays of the Ten Commandments on public property. But, Moore says, that is not establishment of religion. One can't help but wonder what would be establishment of religion from his perspective. Only behavior that it is not appropriately 'Christian' perhaps?

Moore made the same argument in an appeal of his dismissal. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal in October.

The main purpose of the Establishment Clause is to prevent the citizenry from setting up a national religion. But, there are other purposes. The clause is meant to prevent religion from being favored over absence of religion, and, one religion over others, as well. The argument advanced by Moore and the foundation fails all three purposes. Despite their attempt at deniability, they consider Christianity America's national religion. Display of religious symbols, particularly if they are preferred to secular symbols, favors religion over absence of religion. And, obviously, Christianity is being preferred over other religions.

The Supreme Court distilled its reasoning about the Establishment Clause in Everson v. Board of Education (1947).

"The establishment of religion clause means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government may set up a church. Neither can pass laws that aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. . . . Neither a state or the federal government may, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and state.'"

The Bush administration has also filed a brief supporting the display of the Ten Commandments in McCreary. Considering its reliance on the religious Right for its victory in November, such quid pro quos can be expected.

It can be argued that the facts distinguish McCreary from a pure display of religious symbols case. The Ten Commandments are presented with other documents after an earlier decision said a display of them alone violated the Establishment Clause. But, considering that the other documents were added to provide a framework for displaying the religious symbol, I don't find that claim persuasive.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case this Spring. Roy Moore is expected to continue his quest for the limelight in support of an eventual run for national office.

Reasonably related

* An overview of the Establishment Clause can be read here.

* The appellate court's decision in McCreary is available online.

* The Decatur Daily has more information about Moore's views.

Comments

  • LT (unverified)
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    I have one question. He made his fame with a large piece of marble engraved with the 10 Commandments. In what way does that not break the Commandment "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image..."?

  • Anthony (unverified)
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    "The main purpose of the Establishment Clause is to prevent the citizenry from setting up a national religion."

    True, but for the purpose of prevent the persecution of religious minorities, no?

    "But, there are other purposes. The clause is meant to prevent religion from being favored over absence of religion, and, one religion over others, as well."

    This is problematic. Certainly the framers wanted to avoid the situation where Church of Englanders didn't lord it over dissenters, but to go much further is to aggregate later views not included in the Constitution.

    To use the establishment clause as an instrument to quash religious references is hardly in the spirit of an Amendment that proscribes the prohibition of the free exercise of religion.

    Certainly, the rights of individual citizens is a different matter than the prerogatives of government. That's why I said "spirit." But Americans obviously had no problem with generic expressions of Christianity, and even established religions at the state level for a long time after the ratification of the Constitution.

    As far as favoring one religion over another, does that mean having Christmas as a federal holiday should be unconstitutional?

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    Exodus chapter twenty is the source of the "ten commandments" (although it looks to me like there are aroud 12 main ones with a few footnotes in that chapter).

    Among other things, this chaper enjoins the faithful to reject all depictions of any existing thing which precludes all sculpting, drawing and painting although as I read it, Jasper Johns and Klee might make the cut, but South Park and Micky Mouse are both definitely taboo. In addition the chosen are to sacrifice sheep and oxen on altars made of earth and to use no cut stones for "if you wield your tool on it you will profane it."

    There is a chapter break at this point (for reasons known only to scholars), but then the commandments continue for pages, with rules regarding the treatment of slaves, women and other property, as well as the appropriate excersize of vengance, the prompt killing of a host of miscreants including rebellious children, and is particularly fierce regarding the charging of interest on loans, etcetera. The idea of there being only ten commandments doesn't occur anywhere else in the Bible.

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    As for the intent of the founders, although many would fit the mold of today's fundamentalist christians, a large plurality were products of the Enlightenment, taking their cues Hume, Locke, and other contemporary philosophers. They were mostly Deist (grudgingly acceeding to some sort of remote and disinterested creator of their Newtonian universe, who sort of wound things up and watched them go) and many were Freemasons. In short they were proto-humanists and as such, mistrusted all organized religion.

    In this they had evolved socially from the earlier reformation rebels who fled the Church of England for the freedom to form splinter groups with each leader assigning himself the right to oppress his newly minted heretical flock as he saw fit in the privacy of the "new world". Indeed, this freedom to mint new dogma, led to a perpetual fragmenting of of "the church" and was a major driver of the move westward. As each new little cult sprang into existence, the ones that were too deviant had to find new real estate, and that's How the West was Won.

    The founders most central common interest was that they were landowners and businessmen who were pissed that all the good stuff was controlled by the East India Company and the Crown. They thought a little redistribution of wealth was in order, and when they had succeeded, needed to keep the power structure as secular as possible. It was about assets, not religion.

    These Constitution Party guys are way more like the Puritans of the 17th century than the Founding Fathers of the 18th centry that they claim to follow.

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    I don't believe that the religious among us care nearly as much about whether we say "Merry Christmas" or display crosses or flags, or whatever. Devout Jews and Muslims or anyone of "faith" knows at some level that no specific irrational belief system trumps another and I believe that they are resigned to the fact that this is a christian culture, that is tolerant of other religions, but way less tolerant of the non relgious among us.

    We in the "reality based" community are the real opponents of this or that state sanctioned public display of dogma, as we would like to see them all devalued through fact based analysis, and critical thought. We despair that we're still in this fight after three centuries.

  • Aaron (unverified)
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    Roy Moore = Freddie Krueger with a bible???

    The Ultimate Religious Nightmare on Main Street???

    Roy Moore = A Constitutional Wahhabite

    Coming to your town soon!!!!!

  • Sid (unverified)
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    Do atheists celebrate the birth of Jesus? This one does!

    http://www.newframes.typepad.com

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    Pat Ryan alludes to another interesting wrinkle in all of this. There are actually seventeen rules contained in Ten Commandments, and no one can agree on how to group them.

    There are, of course, two sets of different commandments, one at Exodus 20:1-17 (the original ones, that Moses smashed) and another at Deuteronomy 5:6-21 (the second set, to replace the first).

    Also, the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish versions of the "Ten Commandments" all disagree with each other.

    Here's a summary table of the variations.

    Also, there's a great piece over at Slate that describes how stupid it is for a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian to be so obsessed over a bit of "vague pre-Christian desert morality". See Moore's Law, Slate.com.

  • Aaron (unverified)
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    Moore will be honored at the second annual "Profiles in Courage" banquet, 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28, at the Portland Airport Holiday Inn, 8439 N.E. Columbia Blvd. Although sponsored by The Constitution Party of Oregon, it is billed as a non-partisan gathering for those who believe God's guidance is necessary for the nation's survival. Moore will speak for about 40 minutes at the Portland event. It is a fund-raiser for the Foundation for Moral Law, which is pursuing an appeal of Moore's firing. Also honored that evening will be Marion "Doc" Hite, of Portland, who, at age 98, still continues his longtime protests of abortion six days each week outside the Lovejoy Surgicenter. He sits on a folding chair and with his Bible near the Portland abortion facility. Banquet cost is $40 per person; sizable discounts are available for children who attend what Ekstrom describes as "this historic event" with their parents.

    This is an event that all of us, progressive and open-minded individuals; need to go to. Why you ask? So we can report those parents to Child Services for abuse!!!!!! As well, I ponder, if any of the takings will go to the Constitution Party of Oregon. Since the CPO, is a force to be reckoned with in '06.

  • Mac Diva (unverified)
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    Sid, I'm pretty much an agnostic. But, I grew up around religious people. I can honestly say that I am not 'bothered' by religion most of the time. There are Christmas carols playing at my place because I like the music. (No way am I going to pass up Harry Belafonte's "Mary's Boy Child" or Elvis "Blue Christmas." Why should I? They're wonderful songs.) I took Christmas pictures yesterday. As long as religious beliefs or practices are not being imposed, fine. What I can't understand is why some Christians are not equally willing to live and let live.

    Thanks for the additonal info, Kari. Seventeen Commandments? Sounds like some cherry picking has gone on.

  • Brian Wagner (unverified)
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    Anthony- just a thought from the question you posed. Regardless of the basis of giving people Christmas off as a federal holiday, I think an argument can be made that the government has mandated certain days off for all religious holidays (someone correct me if i'm wrong), that is, a person of another religion can get a day or two off from their employer to honor their religion. With Christmas, its impractical to just allow everyone to ask for a day off--when the nation is approximatley 75% Christian, there just isn't any point in trying to make the decision to take time off an individual one--employers would have a hard time staying open, and it probably wouldnt be profitable.

    Just a random thought...

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    Anthony asked, As far as favoring one religion over another, does that mean having Christmas as a federal holiday should be unconstitutional?

    We have holidays to accomodate people's personal lives - the assignment of federal holidays is a place where the personal rubs up against the legal. Brian's right - it's just not practical to keep open, say, the Bureau of Justice Statistics when everyone would want the day off.

    Christmas isn't a federal holiday. Most years, December 25th is the federal holiday. That may sound like semantics, but it's an important distinction. (And, as proof - this year, since 12/25 was a Saturday, the federal holiday was on December 24th.)

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    I think the answer to Anthony's contention that protection from established religious reference is in the opening post:

    "Neither can pass laws that aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another."

    Establishing a national church, or giving preference to one in particular, are covered by clauses 1 and 3. It is clause 2 that is decisive, for to "aid all religions" is the final piece of the puzzle containing one religion, all religions, and no religion. To aid all is to aid one as well, meaning that the only option NOT proscribed is aiding none at all.

    It is instructive to remember that if we are to assume as I do that the founders wrote very carefully, to intentionally leave out the word 'a' between "establishment of" and "religion" supports the claim above. It was the desire of the founders IMO to prevent government from doing ANYTHING that made it appear to be favoring religions over another, but also religious belief and precepts in general, over non-belief. Jefferson's desire of religious freedom, that explicitly includes freedom to be irrelgious, further leans me towards this explication.

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    ugh. That first sentence should say:

    I think the answer to Anthony's contention that protection from established religious reference was not intended, is in the opening post:

  • Becky (unverified)
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    Mac Diva wrote "What I can't understand is why some Christians are not equally willing to live and let live."

    The reason is simple. They honestly believe that if you don't share their religion you will burn in hell, and they're trying to save you from that awful fate. They believe God has appointed them to do this task and they must obey the Almighty God. This is why they are so persistent and inflexible.

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    Roy Moore didn't have authority to redecorate the courthouse even if his choices were appropriate. Even if the Ten Commandments belonged there, which they don't, and even if it were clear what constitutes the Ten Commandments, which it isn't, it would not be a Justice's place to select the display for the courthouse lobby. It would not be his place to choose the curtains or carpeting either. It is not his home.

    We should be mounting a campaign to prominently display the Bill of Rights, of which there is only one version, in every courthouse in the land. And we should be at least as outraged when such a display is resisted as the old-time-religion crowd is at leaving their biblical quotations out of government.

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