Flouting the Constitution

Recently, the Hendricks County Commissioners voted to hang the Ten Commandments in the Rotunda of the County Government Building.

Recently, the Hendricks County Commissioners voted to hang the Ten Commandments in the Rotunda of the County Government Building.

They acted at the request of a new organization based in Auburn, Indiana, called the "Christian Family Association." Their petition argued that the Supreme Court has consistently misconstrued the First Amendment, implicitly acknowledging the constitutional impropriety of their request.

According to the Supreme Court (and generations of historians and legal scholars) the Establishment Clause of the Bill of Rights prohibits government–and only government–from sponsoring or endorsing religious beliefs. The Free Exercise clause protects religious expression from government interference. While the First Amendment originally applied only to the federal government, the Fourteenth Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to state and local governments as well.

The Christian Family Association claims that the refusal of government to endorse Judeo-Christian religious views discriminates against them. In effect, they argue that their right to free exercise is violated unless there is explicit government approval of their religious tradition. Most reasonable people would distinguish between government neutrality in matters of belief and acts of religious discrimination. Citizens of Russia, where a recently passed "Freedom of Religion" act has enumerated the beliefs that government will consider legitimate, might help them understand the difference.

The controversy in Hendricks County is part of a national effort by similar groups. In some areas, proponents have argued that the Ten Commandments are not religious, but form a part of our general moral framework and should thus be viewed solely as an historic document. The text–as a clergyman friend of mine recently noted–refutes any such reading. "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me," "You shall not make for yourselves an idol…for I the Lord your God am a jealous God," "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain..," "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy," are not generalized moral tenets. They are religious admonitions that deserve to be respected as such.

On balance, such disingenuous arguments are less troubling than the CFA’s assertion that the County Commissioners should ignore firmly established legal precedent because the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment is wrong.

The Supreme Court makes many decisions with which I disagree. As a law-abiding citizen, however, I am bound by the law as the Court declares it. I may argue for my interpretation. I may publicly voice my disapproval. But just as disagreement with drug laws does not legitimatize use of cocaine, disagreement with the Supreme Court over the meaning of the First Amendment does not justify intentionally flouting the law.

Just as America cannot allow the secession of every Texan who decides the United States government is illegitimate, we cannot abandon our constitutional rules because some people don’t agree with them. In the final analysis, that–not the Ten Commandments–is the issue for Hendricks County.