In a few months, the last word on whether or not the Ten Commandments can be displayed legally on public property will be heard. The Supreme Court debated the question brought in appeals to cases involving a Texas monument and a framed document in a Kentucky court, both depicting the text of the Ten Commandments.
Public opinion polls indicate that a vast majority, 76 percent, of Americans have no problem accepting the placement of the religious symbol on public property. Some argue that the Ten Commandments provided the framework for modern laws and, therefore, also have a secular purpose.
The High Court justices seemed torn. One noted that the Supreme Court itself has a depiction of Moses and the Ten Commandments on its building. Other justices wondered whether the line separating church and state had been crossed by these displays. But Sandra Day O’Conner, who often casts the swing vote in these types of matters, did not tip her hand at the hearing.
One problem for the High Court is to decide whether or not displays of the Ten Commandments on public land are so ubiquitous that it would be logistically difficult to ban them now. And strong public support for the displays might also have an effect on the decision.
That’s not the way it should be, though. Supreme Court justices hold office for life. The Constitution grants them life terms so that they will not cave in to pressure, either from the other branches of government or from the public, when forming their opinions. High Court decisions should be based solely on the law, the Constitution, and on past court decisions, not on the whims of a majority of the public.
But interpreting the Constitution can be tricky. The First Amendment says the government shall pass no laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” It also forbids any law that would prohibit the free expression of religion.
The question is often raised as to what the Founding Fathers meant. But they were vague on purpose, knowing that future generations would develop different societal norms than existed in 1787.
A more appropriate question would be, “What would the Founding Fathers say about religion if they were drafting the Constitution today?”
We can’t know that for sure, but the burden of deciding that has historically fallen upon the justices of the Supreme Court. They are all very learned men and women who, like the Founding Fathers, have what is best for the country as a whole in mind.
If the Constitution were drafted today, there is a good chance that the line separating church and state would be drawn very sharply. Government has no business meddling in, promoting, or hampering any kind of religious observation, including the symbols thereof.
Coins and currency should not say “In God we trust.” The Pledge of Allegiance shouldn’t include the phrase “under God.” And federal buildings should not display the Ten Commandments, a clearly religious symbol.
As one demonstrator in front of the Supreme Court put it, “My God does not need government help.”