Defending History

Article excerpt

On March 2, the Supreme Court heard a landmark case involving the display of a Ten Commandments monument on the Texas State Capitol grounds. The case, Van Orden v. Perry, illuminates a problem that has plagued state officials around the country: How can the government acknowledge the role religion has played in the nation's history without endorsing a particular version of it?

The Ten Commandments appear in many courthouses and parks across the nation, including the courtroom of the United States Supreme Court. In fact, the very courtroom in which this case was argued contains more than 40 representations of the Ten Commandments as a symbol of law, including a depiction of Moses holding the Decalogue as part of a frieze featuring 18 lawgivers.

The Texas monument, donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1961 and erected at the Eagles' expense, recognizes the Eagles for combating juvenile delinquency. The Eagles' monument, like many others they erected on public property across the country, is a granite stone containing the text of the Ten Commandments. In recent years, those who would ban all acknowledgments of religion from the public square have asked courts to declare these displays un-Constitutional.

But the Supreme Court has said the opposite--that our institutions "presuppose a Supreme Being" and that there is "no Constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion" (Zorach v. Clauson). Rather, the Court has interpreted the First Amendment as prohibiting state and federal government entities from showing favoritism among religious beliefs. It has found displays of religious symbols Constitutional when the government has a nonreligious purpose (such as celebrating a secular holiday), when other symbols or displays place the religious symbol in a broader secular context, and when the overall effect does not suggest to the observer that the government endorses or favors a particular religious message. …