Roy's rock

Cuffed for God

Lordy, lordy, lordy

In July of 2001, Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore installed, in the dead of night, a two and a half ton monument to the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building. Since then a series of lawsuits have sought its removal, and recently a federal judge in Alabama ruled that the rock must be removed on the grounds that it violated the constitutional separation of church and state, and the US Supreme Court refused to intervene.

The judge remained defiant: "If they want to get the Commandments, they're going to have to get me first" (NYTimes, 20-Aug-03). Shades of George Wallace!

praying at the momument

Like moths to a flame, the Fundies came out in force to "support" the judge. "They came streaming in from all directions, wearing their crosses and Confederate T-shirts, carrying dog-eared bibles and bottles of water and enough Power Bars to outlast a siege" (NYTimes, 20-Aug-03).

More than twenty protesters were arrested, including a 66-year old woman in her wheelchair. After she was later released, she returned to proclaim from the courthouse steps, "I was cuffed for God" (NYTimes, 20-Aug-03).

No, ma'am, you wuz cuffed for stupidity!

What part of separation of church and state is so hard to understand? Incidents like this — and there are far too many of them — reveal a dismal failure of civic education.

The first amendment to the constitution says very simply, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...." This clause sets out two very simple principles:

  • The government cannot prescribe or promote a religion — any religion — no matter how many people may believe in it
  • The government cannot prevent people from believing in a religion — any religion — no matter how cockamamy it may be

Both principles are important. The Fundies get their knickers in a twist every time the first principle is applied, because they seem to equate it with a violation of the second principle.

However meritorious the Ten Commandments may be as moral precepts, they are an instance of a specific religious belief, and therefore the government has no business promoting them.

People get all worked up over Islamic fundamentalists for wanting to run some countries' governments according to their beliefs, while failing to condemn the equally zealous Christian fundamentalists who want to do the same thing in the US.

So, if Judge Roy Moore wants to believe in the Ten Commandments, he is free to do so. If he wants to put his two-ton monument on his front lawn, and it doesn't violate zoning codes, he is free to do so. But he has to respect the fact that not everyone shares his beliefs, and he has to accept the fact that Alabama's laws were not handed down on stone tablets.

Just because a whole lot of people in Alabama may share Moore's beliefs doesn't mean that he can impose them on everyone. Henrik Ibsen wrote a terrific play, An Enemy of the People, about this kind of "tyranny of the majority."

As a society, we have to help people understand that diversity is something interesting, that it can be a strength, not a threat.

Ever the optimist, I remain hopeful that some time before I die, the United States will mature enough to dispense with all co-mingling of religion and government, such as the infernal Pledge of Allegiance, opening prayers in Congress, and so forth. It's a slim hope, but a hope nevertheless.