Limits of Religion in Public Life

Court acts wisely on Ten Commandments rulings

On the stage on which the American culture clash over religion is playing out, enter the Supreme Court.

Monday's twin decisions allowing the display of the Ten Commandments on the Texas State Capitol grounds, but not in Kentucky courtrooms, settle a major contentious issue between political religious conservatives and secular humanists.

In this contest, religious conservatives seek to advance a brand of morality in America by actively promoting religious themes and ideas in government. On the other side, secular humanists demand a strict elimination of religious themes from the public square - whether it be on a town common, in the Pledge of Allegiance, or on the US currency.

Other Christians concerned

In recent decades, though, their clash has gradually widened in scope and players. It's not just the conservatives and secularists anymore, but also other people of faith, many of them devout Christians, who have become alarmed at the aggressive agenda of the conservatives.

As former Sen. John Danforth, a Republican from Missouri, recently opined in the New York Times, "It is important for those of us who are sometimes called moderates to make the case that we, too, have strongly held Christian convictions... Our difference concerns the extent to which government should, or even can, translate religious beliefs into the laws of the state."

The senator appeared to speak for a largely unheard constituency in the religion debate, and also hinted at the contest's larger scope in politics, legislation, courts, and schools.

A single and profound question underlies the religious tussle: To what extent should government bring religious beliefs into people's lives?

A case of overstepping

The nation need look no farther back than last week to see how harmful a coercive approach can be. The Air Force, investigating complaints about proselytizing by evangelical Christians at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado, concluded Wednesday that while there was no religious discrimination at the Academy, there was "certainly insensitivity."

Complaints included a banner hung in the football locker room that pronounced players to be members of "Team Jesus Christ"; pressure for cadets to attend chapel; a Jewish cadet being told that the Holocaust was a revenge for killing Jesus, and government e-mails citing the New Testament.

While acknowledging improvements, the investigating Air Force panel recommended the academy establish guidelines for religious expression so that no minority feels coerced into others' views (the vast majority of the cadets identify themselves as Christian).

Guidelines are exactly what the Supreme Court appeared to establish with its two rulings on the Decalogue.

In the Kentucky case, framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two courthouses went too far in endorsing religion, the court held.

But on the Texas capitol grounds, where the Mosaic law shares space with other monuments highlighting other themes, the court found that this was an allowable display of American heritage, and upheld the Constitution's stance of neutrality toward religion.

Walking a fine line

The court took a moderate tack - not "establishing" a religion, which is forbidden by the Constitution, but not stripping God from the public sphere either.

The rulings recognized the historic role of religion in the foundation of this country and its laws.

The decisions brought to mind the "creche" cases of the 1980s, in which the high court walked a fine line by essentially saying that displaying religious symbols was allowable as long as they were part of a larger, primarily non-religious grouping.

Diversity needs respect

The use of religion in government-related places where there is an element of coercion or unfair treatment should be avoided. Any attempt at coercion unglues the respect that holds this diverse country together.

That's why, as the former Missouri senator so aptly concludes, "efforts to haul references of God into the public square, into schools and courthouses, are far more apt to divide Americans than to advance faith."

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