Judge Roy Moore is a man of his word. He promised that if elected chief justice to the Alabama Supreme Court, he would take the Ten Commandments with him to Montgomery.
Two months ago, he kept that promise. A one-ton, granite replica of the “stone tablets” now sits prominently in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building
Sooner or later someone, or some group, is going to challenge the constitutionality of this public display of scripture. Promoters of Moore’s display probably can’t wait for the first motion to be filed. After all, a lawsuit seeking to remove the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Supreme Court will be a fund-raiser’s bonanza.
But that may not be the only reason Moore and his following might be eager for a court fight. There is a strong feeling among many on the religious right that if the Ten Commandments issue comes before the U.S. Supreme Court, they might actually win.
What makes them think this?
The city of Elkhart, Ind., has been fighting a similar battle since 1997. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union challenged the placement of a limestone replica of the Ten Commandments in front of the city hall. The matter went all the way to the federal appeals court where judges ordered the display removed. The city appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in May of this year. In a 6-3 decision, the high court voted not to hear the case, but to let the federal appeals decision stand.
Usually, when the U.S. Supreme Court decides not to hear a case, it does so without comment. But not this time. Three conservative justices–Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas–publicly disagreed with the decision to not hear the case.
“The monument does not express the city’s preference for a particular religion or for religious belief in general,” wrote Rehnquist. “It simply reflects the Ten Commandments’ role in the development of our legal system.”
Since this is very close to Moore’s rationale for displaying the Ten Commandments, he and his supporters may see in the present court an opportunity to have the issue settled once and for all in their favor.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision would settle the matter legally, but it would not solve the deeper religious problem of public displays of scripture.
Faith communities should be leery of allowing the courts to determine the proper role of sacred words. People who live by the words should be the ones most outraged when those words are snatched out of a faith context and put to use for some other purpose. If we do not champion the proper use of scripture, someone with a lot less invested in them will.
Moore, and now a part of the U.S. Supreme Court, is prepared to allow public displays of the Ten Commandments because they are a part of the founding documents of the United States. With this simple assertion, the commandments are reduced to the level of starter blocks.
When promoters of the public display of the Ten Commandments tell us that these great words are the foundation for our political and legal system, what they are really doing is taking the great words and subordinating them to our legal system.
People of faith should be offended by this. The scriptures, which nurture our faith, are not valuable because they are part of some government foundation. The scriptures are valuable on their own, and in their own context. The scriptures do not need a monument to celebrate their importance. Their importance is celebrated every day as people of faith live them and treasure them.
As believers and citizens, we are privileged to participate in two great realities. One reality is the freedom we enjoy living in a democracy. The other reality is the privilege of worship in the presence of God.
Our political freedom is established by law and protected by the Constitution. The privilege of worship is established by divine covenant and protected by God. As people of faith, and as citizens of trust, we must take care that these realities do not engulf one another. Each functions best in its own context.
The bottom line here is fairly clear. Faith communities have the most to lose when their sacred words are put on display as a part of something else. It is a dubious honor, which ultimately empties the scriptures of their power to take us to the source of ultimate reality.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.