Sago Boulevard

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Ten Commandments and Black History Month

William Raspberry quotes Kevin "Seamus" Hasson of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty as saying:
Religion has a natural role in culture -- almost like ethnicity. And both, being categories over which people have killed each other, require scrutiny. But isn't it interesting that our courts are never clogged with Anglophiles trying to enjoin St. Patrick's Day parades, or with whites and Asians trying to stop Black History Month? Mayors can -- and do -- wear green on March 17, while taking no position on the relative merits of being Irish. It should be the same with Christmas and Hanukah.

It's a serious misunderstanding of religion, Hasson argues, to suggest that it ought to remain private.
We believe, so we daub paint on prehistoric cave walls, spend generations building cathedrals, sculpt the David, compose the 'Messiah' and write 'The Brothers Karamazov.' The personal thing to do is, and always has been, not to keep our beliefs private but to express them in culture.

While I'm inclined to agree with both Hasson and Raspberry, I have some reservations. Black History Month isn't quite parallel to displaying a Ten-Commandments momument in front of a courthouse. The mayor wearing green on March 17th is appropriate because it makes no statement about the relationship between "being Irish" and the loyalties of the city. Similarly, there's nothing wrong with public officials decorating a Christmas Tree or publically wishing Jewish Americans "happy New Year" on Rosh Hashanah.

The Ten-Commandments monument is different, though. It's a clear statement that the Court sees itself in a judicial tradition aligned with biblical religion and thus, is unconstitutional. Arguments to the effect of, "well American law really derives from the Bible" miss the point. Even if it were true (and it probably isn't), the government is not allowed to show loyalty to any particular religion. The First Amendment doesn't add "except in cases where our law actually has religious origins." Assuming that the Founders weren't stupid and understood the religious connotations of many of their values, they still felt the need to prohibit State from meddling with Church.

Of course, the government isn't allowed to "prohibit the free exercise" of religion either but that's a subject for another post.