Where’s the proper line between church and state?
In a rare unanimous decision, this past Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a ruling by the Tenth Circuit that would have forced the town of Pleasant Grove, Utah, to accept a granite pyramid inscribed with the “Seven Aphorisms” of a quirky sect called Summum.
The heavily Mormon municipality of Pleasant Grove already displays the Ten Commandments in its town park. (The Eagles Club donated the Decalogue years before.) So the argument went that in the spirit of fair play (and Constitutional law), the town should accept a monument etched with the precepts of a religion dating back to 1975, when Claude “Corkey” Nowells got a revelation from cosmic beings styled “Summum Individuals.”
After all, the First Amendment forbids the government from showing religious favoritism. That’s what the “no establishment” clause of the First Amendment is all about.
So if Pleasant Grove accepts “Thou shall not kill” and ”Do not commit adultery,” it should also display Summum’s metaphysical principles of Psychokinesis, Correspondence, Vibration, Opposition, Rhythm, Cause and Effect, and Gender. Right?
Wrong, said the Court. The display of the Ten Commandments was really about the town’s right of free speech, not about the establishment clause at all.
I’m not sure I follow the Court’s reasoning, or agree with it. But it’s hard to imagine another conclusion. The Supreme Court itself is housed in a building whose eastern façade is decorated with a frieze of famous lawgivers like Hammurabi, Solomon, Confucius, Lycurgus and Moses. Had Wednesday’s ruling gone the other way, Corkey Nowell’s image would presumably have joined that of Solon and company.
And the Court’s frieze seems to suggest that we are a religiously pluralistic nation, drawing on many legal (as well as faith) traditions. America is not by any means an exclusively Christian nation, nor was that the Founder’s intent.
But there are limits, too. One wonders how the Court might have ruled had the local mosque demanded Pleasant Grove display the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Dharmadatu requested a monument etched with the Four Noble Truths?
Either one might have made a more interesting case. As it was, the Seven Aphorisms just seemed too offbeat to the Justices. But the “weirdness test” won’t last long, nor should it.
Last fall, as the case went to Court, I wrote that a number of groups have filed amicus briefs, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the American Jewish Committee.
They note that a diversity of religious opinion flourished in the American colonies during the 18th century—Quakers, Freethinkers, Universalists, Jews, Roman Catholics, Hutterites, Dutch Reformed and a multitude of other denominations--and that the Founders sought to maintain a strict neutrality toward these various religious traditions.
It is hard to argue with the reasoning of James Madison, who wrote in his Memorial & Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of other Sects?”
Granting Pleasant Grove the power to erect a shine to the Ten Commandments, by Madison’s reasoning, means the town (or any other governmental body) could equally well erect a shrine to the goddess Kali, to the exclusion of non-Hindus. That would be bad.
Personally, I like the Ten Commandments much more than the Aphorisms of Summum. Some of the rules, like the ones about idol worship and not taking God’s name in vain, seem a bit dated. But prohibitions on murder and false testimony never go out of style. I predict that “honoring your father and mother” will be a precept that stands strong, long after Summum is forgotten.
But my own religious preferences weren’t meant to be written into law. So while I’m free to display the Commandments in my home and in my church, they shouldn’t be memorialized on Pleasant Grove’s town green.
Here’s my aphorism: Keep the Commandments in your own ethical life—but don’t keep them in the public park. That was the Founder’s view. And I think the God of Moses would probably agree.