McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, oh Lord please don’t let me misunderstood,” the 1960s rock group, The Animals, sang. If the framers of the U.S. Constitution had any inkling that their desire to secure religious freedom for Americans would become the source of so much confusion, they might well have employed the British band’s sentiment as a prologue to the First Amendment.
“Congress shall make no Law respecting an Establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the First Amendment to the Constitution begins. Seems like clear and precise language to me. But then again I am not a constitutional lawyer.
Christianity was very much a part of the founding of this nation. References to this fact pepper the buildings and monuments of our nation’s capital. Most states have numerous references to God in their founding documents. Religion and religious expression were important to the founders of our country. Hence they wanted people free to exercise religion without government interference. From all the religious language used during the formative years of this country, it seems that Christians were quite active in expressing their religion publicly.
So precious was the idea of religious freedom that the framers of the Constitution did not want Congress to establish one religion as the only religion. Thus no law was to be drafted that would force an individual to practice, subscribe to or support a particular religion. The framers also did not want legislation enacted that would restrict a person from engaging in the pursuit of his or her religion.
So long as Congress does not force a person to embrace a particular religion or seek to restrict his or her pursuit of religion, everything is kosher. Well, that was until those hostile to religion in general, and Christianity in particular, entered the picture.
In the past 50 years, the first 16 words of the First Amendment have been so parsed that many now insist they declare any public expression of religion — especially Christianity — as taboo. At best, those who want to expunge religious references from public places are confused. At worst, their hostility to the public expression of Christianity is driving them to force their view onto the masses.
This confusion concerning the opening portion of the First Amendment is at the heart of the controversy surrounding a display of the Ten Commandments in Alabama’s Supreme Court building.
Two years ago, Chief Justice Roy Moore had a display of the Ten Commandments placed in the building. No public money was utilized in the construction or placement of the monument. It simply takes up space in a government building. In response to a lawsuit, a federal judge has ruled the display unconstitutional and has ordered its removal.
My question is, How does the presence of this symbol that two major religions, Judaism and Christianity, claim as sacred constitute a law establishing a religion? Which religion is “established” and how? Are people forced to bow and pray to the monument? Are people who appear in the building coerced into swearing an oath of loyalty to Judaism or Christianity, or both? Are people who do not adhere to either faith discriminated against in the adjudication of their cases?
If the current ruling forbidding the presence of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of Alabama’s high court stands, the implications are far-reaching. It will mean that no privately funded display of religion — any religion — is constitutional on any public property at any time. If the religious display in Alabama is unconstitutional, then all the displays in our nation’s capital are unconstitutional. In fact, all religious displays in connection with the government are unconstitutional.
I do not think this is what the framers of the Constitution intended.
Judge Roy Moore understands the implications of the current ruling concerning the display of the Ten Commandments in the state judicial building. Hence he is willing to take a stand based on his convictions. I have a feeling the framers of the Constitution would stand with him.
The day is fast approaching when every American, like Judge Moore, is going to be forced to take a stand on what the First Amendment actually means. When that time comes, make sure you are not confused. It could be quite costly for you, as well as for future generations.
Boggs’ column appears weekly in Baptist Press. He is pastor of Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville, Ore.