”And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?” — Thomas Jefferson (1)
In June of 2005, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision that allowed the display of the Ten Commandments on government property when the motive behind the display is secular (for historical or legal purposes) and not religious. Although taking great pains to split this hair, the Court conceded that:
“From at least 1789, there has been an unbroken history of official acknowledgment by all three branches of government of religion’s role in American life.” Van Orden v. Perry (03-1500)
But while the Court ruled the Ten Commandments could be displayed on the grounds of the state capitol building in Austin, Texas, the Court ruled against the display of the Ten Commandments in the court houses of two Kentucky counties because it believed that a religious motive behind those displays. Oddly enough both decisions were handed down on that same June day.
The Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision that there was a religious motive in Kentucky, citing the Kentucky “state legislature’s acknowledgment of Christ as the ‘Prince of Ethics'” and the Kentucky courts’ use of other displays (e.g. the Declaration of Independence and the lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner) “containing religious references as their sole common element.” McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (03-1693) Same documents. Wrong motive.
Motive is the key to the Supreme Court’s view of federal, state, and local officials’ use of not only the Ten Commandments, but of our founding documents and of our national anthem as well. Displays of the Ten Commandments by various states in recent weeks have passed the Court’s test of motive. Not so for Judge Roy Moore’s Ten Commandment monument in Alabama in 2003.
In the now famous case involving Alabama Chief Justice, Roy Moore, a federal judge ruled that Moore’s motive was a religious one when he displayed the Ten Commandments. Civil rights lawyer, Morris Dees, in opposing Judge Roy Moore’s display of the Ten Commandments on Alabama State Court House property said that Judge Moore, “placed this monument here to acknowledge the sovereignty of God over the affairs of men, and that’s pretty much it.” Dees was right. The real battle is over the government’s acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God.
In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to entertain a case regarding the display of the Ten Commandments at a municipal building in Elkhart, Indiana. The Court’s decision let stand a lower court’s ruling that the display of the Ten Commandments was a violation of the United States Constitution. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from that majority decision. In their dissent, Rehnquist wrote:
“Indeed, a carving of Moses holding the Ten Commandments, surrounded by representations of other historical figures, adorns the frieze on the south wall of our courtroom.”
Justice John Paul Stevens defended the Court’s majority decision, stating:
“Even though the first two lines of the monument’s text appear in significantly larger font than the remainder, they are ignored by the dissenters. Those lines read: ‘THE TEN COMMANDMENTS – I AM THE LORD THY GOD.” The graphic emphasis placed on those first lines is rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference.”
As Christians, we know that it is those very words: “I am the Lord thy God.” that are driving a wedge between the faithful and the faithless. It is because of those very words that our institutions have become battlegrounds.
We know that God is sovereign. It is because He is sovereign that He alone can give us our natural rights. We have evidence that our founders did acknowledge the sovereignty of God in all of the affairs of men. That evidence is there in our nation’s founding documents, in the lyrics of our national anthem, and in the personal writings of our founders themselves. Any attempt to keep this evidence from the public knowledge (even under the guise of neutrality) is a violation of those natural rights that our Constitution seeks to preserve.
“The evidence of [the] natural right [of expatriation], like that of our right to life, liberty, the use of our faculties, the pursuit of happiness, is not left to the feeble and sophistical investigations of reason, but is impressed on the sense of every man. We do not claim these under the charters of kings or legislators, but under the King of Kings.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Manners, 1817. Memorial Edition 15:124 (2)
(1)http://etext.virginia.edu/jefferson/quotations/jeff0100.htm, Notes on Virginia Q.XVIII, 1782. Memorial Edition 2:227,
accessed 4/25/06; lgf.
(2)http://etext.virginia.edu/jefferson/quotations/jeff0100.htm,Thomas Jefferson to John Manners, 1817. Memorial Edition 15:124, accessed 4/25/06; lgf.