A Capitol debate on the Ten Commandments

Moderated by Rick Badie

A lawmaker defends his legislation that would allow placement of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state Capitol. Meanwhile, I interview a legal scholar who says such a display likely would be struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, the lawmaker who sponsored legislation that, likewise, allows for a privately funded statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. states the case for the honor.

Monument reflects religious liberty

By Greg Morris

Are Ten Commandments displays constitutional?

The General Assembly passed House Bill 702, a billed I sponsored, to allow private funding for a monument on the Capitol grounds to display the Ten Commandments, the Georgia Constitution’s preamble and part of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Some contend this is a groundbreaking religious statement that violates the Constitution.

While the Georgia Supreme Court has no recent ruling on religious displays, Georgia has a long Judeo-Christian tradition that allows free expression of religious faith. A 1921 state Supreme Court case involved a Rome ordinance requiring daily Bible readings and prayer. The court affirmed the responsibility of the school system to do so. In the majority opinion on Wilkerson vs. City of Rome, Judge Gilbert cited numerous historical facts and court cases regarding religious freedom going back to colonial days.

Gilbert argued that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution couldn’t possibly have been attributed to atheism. He quoted Benjamin Franklin: “I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it possible that an empire can rise without his aid?”

This quote came as Franklin was defending his resolution to have a daily, clergy-led prayer service as delegates deliberated the Constitution. Apparently, religion was uppermost in the minds of our Founding Fathers. The first part of the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The first provision prohibits state-established churches as existed in England; the second assures a right to freely practice your religion.

The term “separation of church and state” is nowhere in the Constitution, yet it’s been cited in numerous court cases since 1947. (The term came from a Thomas Jefferson letter assuring the Danbury Baptists the state would not interfere with their religious liberty.)

Federal court cases since then have been all over the map on what the First Amendment requires. However, they’ve been consistently clear the Ten Commandments can be included as part of a historical display. Few would argue their clear influence on our legal system and our history.

The Ten Commandments are on the U.S. Supreme Court building, the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress rotunda and the National Archives, and they are posted on the wall of our Georgia Capitol. A monument to the basis of our legal system would be an honorable addition to the collection of historical monuments on the grounds. Maybe a display will inspire and remind our citizens, legislators and government workers not to lie, steal or kill. Or maybe not, since no one will be forced to read or practice them.

And that’s religious liberty.

State Rep. Greg Morris is a Republican from Vidalia.

“HB 702 is clearly unconstitutional”

By Rick Badie

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the School of Law at UC-Irvine and noted legal scholar of constitutional law, answered questions regarding House Bill 702, Georgia’s Ten Commandments legislation.

Q: Do you think this would pass court muster?

A: Under current law, HB 702 is clearly unconstitutional. In McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a county’s decision to place the Ten Commandments in its buildings along with other documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, that mark the importance of religion in American government. The court emphasized that the Ten Commandments is inherently religious. The Georgia legislation is strikingly similar to what the court declared unconstitutional.

Q: What, generally, makes such a monument unconstitutional?

A: There is no doubt there can be a display of the Ten Commandments if it’s truly a part of a display with a secular purpose. The frieze in the Supreme Court, for example, depicts many sources of law, from Hammurabi’s Code to John Marshall and includes Moses holding the Ten Commandments. Any person seeing this display would see it is about sources of law and not primarily about displaying the Ten Commandments. The Supreme Court has held the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from acting with the primary purpose of advancing religion or if the primary effect is to advance religion.

Q: Can monument supporters claim a secular purpose?

A: No. The Ten Commandments are inherently religious. They begin with the words, “I am the Lord Thy God.” The first five commandments are mandates for devotion and worship to God. There are significant differences among versions of the Ten Commandments of the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant faiths. The choice to put one version over the others is itself a religious choice.

Q: What about inclusion of preambles and such?

A: That is the importance of McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky. The county chose to include other documents like the preambles. But the Supreme Court concluded the purpose of the county was to advance religion by putting a religious document in county buildings. The very reason the Georgia Legislature wants the Ten Commandments at the state Capitol is because of its religious content. That is not lessened by including the preambles.

Q: You were involved in the Van Orden v. Perry case. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Ten Commandments display at the Texas state Capitol.

A: Justice Breyer’s opinion — and he was the key fifth vote for the majority — stressed that it had been there since 1961, and no one had complained about it. He also stressed the 20-plus other symbols on the Texas state Capitol grounds. He did not find that the primary purpose or primary effect was to advance religion. I do not see how that can be said about the proposed Georgia monument.

King statue long overdue

By Calvin Smyre

One thing we can all agree upon: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a world-renowned figure who stood up and spoke up for freedom, justice and equality for all people. He was a great Georgian who advocated nonviolence and inspired people worldwide. It is only fitting that his native state authorize placement of a statue on the grounds of the state Capitol. House Bill 1080, with bipartisan support from the House and Senate as well as the governor, does just that.

The legislation was passed by wide margins in both chambers and is headed to Gov. Nathan Deal for signature. It states that no taxpayer dollars will be used to fund the statue. While a statue is a symbolic gesture, King should join other great Georgians. His statue will signify a sense of pride and reflection of the long journey up freedom highway. As the saying goes: “Freedom is not free; a price has been paid.”

King certainly paid the ultimate price for Georgia, the United States and the entire world. Fifty years ago, he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Having heard and read that speech on many occasions leads me to believe it has become one of the most read and heard speeches of all time. It has driven people of all races and nationalities to celebrate King’s life’s work and the strides we all have made toward justice and equality. The speech is inscribed as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the National Mall, the first to honor an African-American and one who did not serve as president.

Throughout America and Georgia, we continue to celebrate King’s contributions and his legacy as a peacemaker and noted Georgian. At 35, he was the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He was posthumously awarded a 1977 Presidential Medal of Honor and a 2004 Congressional Gold Medal. He has a federal holiday in his name.

According to Derek Alderman, a cultural geographer at East Carolina University, there are 730 American cities in 39 states that have named a street after King. More than 100 streets here in Georgia and 110 public schools bear King’s name. He once stated: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

Thank you, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for the sacrifices you made to make Georgia and America what it is today. The state Capitol statue is long overdue.

Calvin Smyre is a Democrat from Columbus.

6 comments Add your comment

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

March 27th, 2014
4:58 pm

Only God Almighty knows what Calvin Smrye is talking about. Maybe his two cents is propaganda targeting innocent young people, children. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights workers did not fight for freedom. They fought, marched, and spoke in behalf of Civil Rights i.e. equal rights and justice for all as they are doing today. Perhaps Calvin Smrye doesn’t understand freedom vs. equal rights, justice.

Amen?

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

March 27th, 2014
4:42 pm

Everything that society accredits to Martin Luther King Jr. is a total fabrication. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. told us that by integrating the schools, our black students would be able to attain the knowledge required to build state of the art black communities. A black people bent on escaping the HOOD was an alien thought to him. You should be able to see the point of departure from the ideology that is presently accredited to Martin Luther King Jr.

Amen?

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

March 27th, 2014
4:31 pm

But Representative Morris got the other half wrong. I am sure that my good friend Dexter King would agree with me in that regard. Dr. M. L. King’s stature should not be placed on Capitol grounds. To place his stature on Capitol grounds is to legally suggest in stones that his integrationist ideology is entirely responsible for the present decline and destruction of the masses of black people in the US and around the globe.

Amen?

Corey

March 27th, 2014
2:53 pm

The only two commandments that have been codified into law prohibitions against killing and stealing. The rest are religious prohibitions.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

March 27th, 2014
2:03 pm

State Representative Greg Morris has part of it correct. There is no lawful reason why a monument displaying the Ten Commandments should not be displayed on Capitol grounds. Anyone with their head, heart, mind, body, and spirit in the wrong place can create opposition. But the only unlawful reason the Ten Commandments should not be displayed on Capitol grounds that I can think of is, like African Americans, they are not a part and parcel of the New World Order

Amen?.

Dr. Robert Zaslavsky

March 27th, 2014
9:11 am

In the discussions surrounding a monument to the Ten Commandments, why is there no one who realizes—as one who claims to be familiar with the Decalogue should—that a sculptural monument to the Ten Commandments is itself a violation of the second commandment [“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” (Exodus 20: 4)]?