Wednesday, March 02, 2005

SO THE SUPREME COURT has gone straight from the death penalty to the Ten Commandments; or, more specifically, whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed on the grounds of government buildings.

It's funny how a strict constructionist like Antonin Scalia is willing to make new law not supported by the Constitution when it comes to blurring the separation between church and state. What's the problem with the government endorsing religion? Scalia asked one of the attorneys in the Texas case.

"It is a symbol that the government derives its authority from God. It says our laws are derived from God. And that's what the vast majority of the American people believe."

The flawed logic here is astounding. First of all, even if it's true that the "vast majority of Americans believe" that the laws of the United States derive from God, it does not follow that a "vast majority" believe that the Ten Commandments should be displayed in front of courthouses and on plaques on courthouse walls. Second, and even more to the point, what the "vast majority of Americans believe" is not necessarily what the Constitution requires, allows, or states. And Scalia is utterly wrong when he says that the U.S. government derives its authority from God. That may be his personal belief, but nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the U.S. government derives its authority from God. Here is what the Constitution's Preamble says:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Where is any mention of God in that paragraph?

The only place where a Higher Power is mentioned is in the Declaration of Independence, and then in a very general way. The word "God" is not used, nor does the text state that the government derives its authority from God. Here is the relevant passage, at the beginning of the second paragraph of the Declaration.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, ...

So there it is. Our government "derives" its "just powers from the consent of the governed" -- as do all governments, the language implies. The source of government's power is the people, not God. Yes, all human beings have "certain unalienable Rights" given to us by our Creator, but even if you take "Creator" to be a reference to the Judeo-Christian "God," which is not at all obvious, it is still not the case that governments derive their authority from that Creator. Human beings derive their innate and inherent rights from that Creator. Human beings then establish governments to ensure that those rights will be respected and enshrined in law, but the authority of the government derives from the people, because they are the ones who established those governments.

Then there is Scalia's statement that the "Ten Commandments dispute requires tolerance and acceptance of religion."

"The minority has to be tolerant of the majority," he said.

Pardon the French, but that is crap.

Freedom of religion is not about minority versus majority. It's about the freedom to hold and express religious beliefs, or not to hold any religious beliefs at all. It's about the freedom to observe your spiritual or religious customs, rituals, traditions, holidays without fear of persecution or intimidation; or NOT observe the religious customs, rituals, traditions, and holidays of the majority you live among without having to fear that you will be arrested, or fired from your job, or harassed. Displaying the Ten Commandments in front of a courthouse has absolutely nothing to do with freedom of religion, or with the minority being tolerant of the majority. In fact, government displays of the Ten Commandments, or any symbol of a specific religious tradition, is the polar opposite of tolerance: it's pushing one group's religious beliefs down the entire public's throat. It's the government making an establishment of religion -- saying, "This is the religion the government endorses. All others are second-best."

There is something very wrong with that. If you think not, read again the gorgeous words of the glorious First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That's MY religion.

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