Moore's Law

A monument to religious extremism


Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's defiance of a federal court order to remove a huge granite monument depicting the Ten Commandments from the lobby of State Judicial Building is hailed by his many champions as a courageous act of civil disobedience. To his detractors, Moore is less a modern-day Martin Luther King than a modern-day George Wallace in judicial robes.

The saga of the monument, and the raucous protests held outside the courthouse by Christian activists who tried to prevent its removal, became a quaint media circus. But the issues involved in this case are very serious. Many conservatives sympathize with Moore's goals if not his tactics; they see the court order to remove the monument as an example of judicial overreach—and of an aggressive secularism determined to expunge every mention of God or faith from public life. Many liberals regard the widespread support for Moore as a troubling sign that the separation of church and state in America is in trouble.

The complaint that an absolutist interpretation of the separation of church and state may sometimes threaten religious freedom is actually not without foundation. But not in this case. If the monument locally known as "Roy's Rock" (which Moore had installed two years ago in the middle of the night, without the knowledge of his fellow justices) can pass constitutional muster, then the prohibition on state establishment of religion truly has no meaning.

This does not mean that the Ten Commandments can never be displayed on public property, or even in a courthouse. As some of Moore's supporters point out, a figure of Moses with the two tablets is part of a frieze at the US Supreme Court building. But "part" is the operative word: the frieze honors Moses as one of history's many lawgivers, among them Confucius and Hammurabi. The display at the Alabama courthouse was exclusive. And Moore was quite frank about the fact that his purpose in installing it was to make a statement about the primacy of Judeo-Christian religion as the "moral foundation" of American law.

Some of the claims made in this debate have been truly baffling: for instance, that the Ten Commandments do not belong to any particular religion but represent nonsectarian spirituality. (This assertion has been voiced, among others, by the pugnacious Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly.) But "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" is pretty specific, as is the admonition to keep the Sabbath holy as a day of rest. The "Lord" of the Ten Commandments is clearly the God of Christianity and Judaism.

Almost as bewildering is the argument that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of American law. In fact, only three of the commandments prohibit actual criminal behavior (murder, theft, and bearing false witness); four if you include adultery, which is still technically a criminal offense in some states. "Honor thy father and thy mother" is a fine principle, but is not written into law; nor do we throw people in jail for making graven images or for taking the Lord's name in vain, though who knows what would happen if Moore had his way. If we really want to honor a historical document from which our laws are to some extent derived, try the Magna Carta.

The monument was clearly meant as an endorsement by the state of a particular brand of religion. Those who think this has no impact on Moore's ability to judge cases impartially with no religious bias might want to consider that not long ago, he quoted the biblical strictures against homosexuality in a legal opinion denying a lesbian mother custody of her three children.

Yes, overzealous proponents of strict separation of church and states can be rigid, intolerant, and just plain silly. In some instances, high school valedictorians have not been allowed to mention God or their faith in their graduation speeches, as if merely hearing such comments would somehow oppress people of different beliefs.

A few years ago, a New Jersey first-grader was forbidden to read aloud in class because his reading selection was from a children's book of Bible stories. In 11 states, the law prohibits federal financial aid to college students who major in theology, divinity or religious education. Until a recent Supreme Court ruling, a college could refuse to fund student publications with religious themes.

All these examples involve active discrimination against religious speech. The Ten Commandments saga involves the active embrace of religion by a public institution (and one in which any appearance of bias is especially dangerous). Neither of these extremes is good for the Republic—or for religion.