Thursday, March 03, 2005

If It's a Symbol, to Hell with It 

The Supreme Court is hearing two cases involving the display of the Ten Commandments on state property, and Dahlia Lithwick's blow-by-blow account of the arguments, from Slate, is hilarious:
Chemerinsky points out that the text on the Texas monument is not the Jewish version and thus alienating. But what about religions that don't accept the commandments at all? "Imagine a Muslim or a Buddhist," he begins. Justice Antonin Scalia cuts him off: "Muslims believe in the Ten Commandments," he says. "No, they don't," replies Chemerinsky. Scalia looks horrified, but without missing a beat he adds: "I think 90 percent of Americans believe in the Ten Commandments. And I bet 85 percent couldn't tell you what the 10 are." (This statistic is supported by the excited utterances of my cab drivers both to and from the court this morning.) Scalia's point here: "When someone walks by the commandments, they are not studying the text. They are acknowledging that the government derives its authority from God."

Preach it, Brother.

Throughout the morning it becomes increasingly clear that Scalia is the only member of the court who is being truly honest. His position: Sure, the display is religious and not secular. Let's put up some crosses, too, and have a revival meeting. In this sense, Scalia represents the vast majority of the protesters outside. They are not venerating the historical secular influence of the commandments, whatever the lawyers inside the courthouse may say. They just really like God . . . .

Staver retreats to insisting that the purpose of even the original display was secular, specifically to show "the historic nature of the Ten Commandments as the foundation of American law." Again, this offends Scalia, who rears up to quote Justice William O. Douglas saying quite the opposite: "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."

Ginsburg tries to go a different route, distinguishing the cases at hand from the court's historic indulgence of "In God We Trust" on coins. That "minimal reference" to the divine is quite different from "a powerful statement of the covenant God is making with his people," she says. Staver replies that the references to God in the commandments are minimal, too.

"Have you, um, read the first four?" queries Ginsburg.

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