June 4, 2001
Religious Liberty Thwarted by the Supreme Court
Last week, a divided Supreme Court declined to hear a potentially landmark case that has tremendous significance to religious believers in this country. The small town of Elkhart, Indiana, has a granite stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments in front of a city building. Predictably, the ACLU brought a lawsuit against the city seeking to have the decades-old stone removed. City officials fought the case in federal court, but lost at the appellate level. Although Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas disagreed, the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case and let the ruling stand. The fate of the stone now lies with a lower federal judge, who undoubtedly will order it removed despite the wishes of Elkhart city officials and local residents. Ironically, the same Ten Commandments deemed so objectionable by the ACLU are depicted in the very Supreme Court building where the decision not to consider the Elkhart case was made! How tragic that our courts have accepted the myth that religious beliefs cannot be represented in any public setting, even when religious symbolism adorns courthouses across the country.
The First amendment (or any other constitutional provision) must be strictly construed to reflect the intent of the Founding Fathers. The language is clear- Congress simply is prohibited from passing laws establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. There certainly is no mention of any "separation of church and state", although Supreme Court jurisprudence over the decades constantly asserts this mystical doctrine. Sadly, the application of this faulty doctrine by judges and lawmakers consistently results in violations of the free exercise clause. Rulings and laws separating citizens from their religious beliefs in all public settings simply restrict religious practices. Our Founders clearly never intended an America where citizens nonsensically are forced to disregard their deeply held beliefs in public life. The religious freedom required by the Constitution should not end the moment one enters a school, courtroom, or city hall.
Moreover, there is ample evidence that most of our Founders were deeply religious men who never imagined a rigid separation between religious beliefs and governance. Indeed, our national documents, symbols, currency, and buildings are replete with religious symbolism. Our national motto, "In God We Trust," is an obvious example. These symbols are entirely inconsistent with the religion-free government supposedly mandated by the First amendment.
The Supreme Court also has ignored the obvious point that the amendment applies only to Congress, and not to the states. This means that while the federal government cannot pass laws restricting religion or use federal funds to give preference to one religion over another, state and local governments retain the right under the 10th Amendment to set their own policies regarding religious expression. The Elkhart case is a classic example of the courts ignoring this fundamental distinction between federal and local action. Bluntly, the use of Elkhart city government property is none of the federal government's business. Yet respect for state rights and enumerated powers, not to mention the property rights of the citizens of Elkhart, is nonexistent in our federal courts. The unchallenged assumption is that the federal courts have jurisdiction over all religious matters.
The sad result of this misinterpretation of the Constitution is a legal and political landscape which is unnecessarily hostile to religion. Popular culture and media mirror this hostility in their inaccurate and unflattering portrayals of religious conservatives and fundamentalists. The message is always the same: conservatives want to force their religious beliefs upon society. The truth is that secular humanists have forced their beliefs upon a largely religious nation. In schools, in government, and in the courts, secular values dominate. Secularism, wrongly characterized as neutral toward religious faith, has become the default philosophy for our society. The Supreme Court, by refusing to consider the Elkhart case, has furthered the cause of those who wish to see religion eliminated from American life.