Church-and-state Standoffs Spread over USA

( [email protected] ) Sep 30, 2003 11:36 AM EDT

FREDERICK, Md. — This leafy city, whose many churches inspired an early poet to write of its "clustered spires," is beloved by history buffs. Francis Scott Key lived here after he wrote The Star-Spangled Banner. Antietam, the Civil War battlefield that in 1862 produced the bloodiest day in U.S. history, is a short drive away.

Today, Frederick is a battleground in another bitter conflict — how to define the appropriate role of religion in the nation's public buildings and town squares.

High school senior Blake Trettien sued the city last year over a monument to the Bible's Ten Commandments in a public park. Legendary Hollywood filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille and a local service group donated the monument to the city in 1958, part of a nationwide promotion for his movie The Ten Commandments.

Trettien dropped his suit after the city sold the sliver of land containing the monument. But another city resident and a Washington civil liberties group have filed another lawsuit, arguing that people can't tell that the monument is no longer on city property.

Now, Frederick is embroiled again in a volatile, fast-spreading national fight. From Winder, Ga., to Everett, Wash., Americans are squaring off in courthouses, classrooms and city halls over religious monuments in government buildings and parks.

The intense, emotionally heated battles reflect the complex, often conflicting views of Americans about the constitutional principle that separates the affairs of church and state. More than two centuries after the nation was founded by settlers fleeing religious persecution, its citizens are still defining exactly where to draw that line.

A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll provides a glimpse of where the line is today:

• It's OK to have "In God we trust" on coins and a Bible on the teacher's desk — but not OK for priests and rabbis to advise politicians on abortion or the death penalty.

• It's OK to say a non-denominational prayer at a high school football game and to give federal money to social programs run by Christian groups — but not for programs run by Muslim groups.

• A Ten Commandments monument in a courthouse doesn't mean the government favors Christians and Jews over those from other faiths. Most support displaying Christian symbols — but not Islamic ones. However, many say government promotion of a specific religion can harm the rights of non-believers.

• When it comes to God in public, Americans want both signs of faith — if it's their own — and signs of fairness.

The poll was conducted Sept. 19-21, less than a month after a church-and-state standoff between Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and the federal courts drew round-the-clock news coverage.

At issue was a 5,200-pound granite monument to the Ten Commandments that Moore had installed two years ago in the rotunda of the state judicial building in Montgomery. For months, Moore defied a federal court order to remove the monument, which detractors dubbed "Roy's Rock." As a final deadline approached, hundreds of demonstrators held vigils on the building's front steps in support of Moore before the monument was wheeled out of public view.

"I believe it's important for people of faith to take a stand," says Jim Johnson, 55, who drove 61/2 hours from his home in Haynesville, N.C., to stand in sweltering heat outside the courthouse to support Moore. "I believe this is the most important issue of our lifetime. This country was founded by men and women who were religious, the vast majority Christians. The vast majority of the American people have values that are reflected in what's written on that monument."

Trettien, now a freshman at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says the fact that most Americans share that value system is what makes it so important to protect the rights of those who don't.

"A lot of the people who got really upset at me said that if the majority of the people want Frederick County to be a Christian county, then it should be a Christian county," says Trettien, who will turn 20 Wednesday. "But the Constitution is there to protect the minority from the majority."

Disputes are frequent

Many Americans saw Alabama's Ten Commandments standoff as a Bible Belt passion play unique to the evangelical South. But such conflicts have bubbled up in every region of the country. At least two dozen disputes over Ten Commandments monuments or similar displays have gone to court since 2000. Thousands of such monuments are on display around the nation in public places.

"There's a particular irony in the fact that so many Americans support the display of the Ten Commandments in public places but routinely fail to (honor) them in their own lives," says Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, which provides information on ethics to Baptist congregations around the country. "We say we're religious people — we just don't care enough to show it."

The men and women who founded the republic in the late 18th century were generally religious people, too. But mindful of the oppression they had seen in Europe over matters of church and state, they wrote the following words into the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." That terse, two-pronged principle — government can't promote a specific religion and can't stop people from worshiping the way they want to — still leaves lots of gray areas in 2003, the USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll indicates.

Much of the debate comes down to this: Many Americans — perhaps a majority — disagree with federal court decisions that consistently have barred prayer in school and the presence of religious monuments in government buildings when the displays seem designed to promote a religious message.

"An awful lot of Americans don't understand why they can't use their government to promote or celebrate their religion," says Douglas Laycock, a First Amendment specialist at the University of Texas School of Law.

But Americans' views as reflected in the poll indicate a more complicated set of values. Though 70% say they approve of Ten Commandments monuments in public areas, only 10% in another question say it's acceptable to display only Christian symbols. In that question, 58% say it's acceptable to display Christian symbols as long as symbols of other religions also are displayed. In most Ten Commandments disputes, federal courts have ruled the same way.

"The mood of the country in general is that God is very important and religion is very important," says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "But I would make a distinction between religion in general and specific religions. People think it's quite proper to have religion in public if it's broad and inclusive."

The poll seems to bear that out. A majority of respondents — 54% — say that any time government promotes the teachings of a particular religion, it risks harming the rights of people who don't practice that religion.

Respondents were generally tolerant of other, unspecified faiths — but less so of Islam. Though most approve of Ten Commandments monuments in public areas, 64% oppose a monument to Islam's Koran.

The discrepancy is partly residue from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, says Muslim scholar Muqtedar Khan, director of international studies at Adrian College in Adrian, Mich., and a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. But it is more attributable to evangelical Christians distorting the religion and to widespread ignorance of Islam, he says.

"Most Americans do not realize that all the Ten Commandments are in the Koran," Khan says. "As a Muslim, I'm offended by court orders to remove the Ten Commandments. This would be true of 98% of Muslims."

Since the attacks, millions of Americans have come together to pray publicly at memorial services and sporting events. They have sung God Bless America and posted that phrase on their automobiles, T-shirts and store marquees.

At the same time, some of the nation's top officials have advanced policies that some critics say blur the line between church and state. President Bush has worked to permit federal funds to be used for social programs run by churches and other religious institutions. Last year, the Supreme Court approved programs that would give parents vouchers to use public funds to send their children to religious schools.

Debate about values

Many scholars and church leaders say a key factor in Americans' desire to carve out a public place for religion is the pervasive worry that the nation's moral values are eroding. They say television, the nation's cultural touchstone, has become so drenched in profanity, sex and violence that many parents don't dare watch it with their children. A report last week by the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group, found an increase in profanity on "virtually every network" and in every time slot.

"The support (for religious displays) is deep, and I believe that response is a cumulative response," says Rod Loy, pastor of First Assembly of God Church in North Little Rock "People are seeing the abandonment of the values that our nation was founded upon. That's absolutely part of what's driving this response."

Many experts — and some leading evangelists — saw the Alabama case as a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment prohibition against state-sponsored religion. Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics says, "The most important place for the Ten Commandments to be displayed is in churches, not in the public square."

Other cases seem more nuanced than the Alabama battle over Moore's monument. Such is the case in Frederick.

Frederick was one of hundreds of U.S. cities that got stone monuments of the laws given to Moses. Local chapters, or "aeries," of the Fraternal Order of Eagles raised money to pay for the displays and installed them. The marker here was put up outside the county courthouse.

"My father was a trustee in 1958," says Joseph Baer Jr., 60, a trustee of Aerie 1067. "He was very proud of that monument."

In 1983, county offices moved to another site, and their old building became City Hall. Anticipating legal challenges, officials moved the monument to a 2-acre, city-owned park that contains monuments to Frederick's war dead.

In early 2002, Trettien wrote a letter to the city asking whether the monument was constitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city on his behalf in August 2002. In November, after a heated controversy, the city decided to sell a strip of land about 250 feet long and 30 feet wide that contains the monument. It solicited bids, and in December sold the property to the Eagles, who agreed to maintain it.

"We tried to do the right thing," says their spokesman, R. Christopher Goodwin.

The ACLU dropped its suit. But in June, Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued the city and the Eagles in U.S. District Court on behalf of Roy Chambers, 66, who lives near the park. The suit says the monument is offensive to Chambers because it expresses a religious message on what appears to be public property and because the Eagles were not the lowest bidder for the land.

Many religious leaders dismiss the Ten Commandments fights as a distraction from more important issues.

"It's kind of silly to me," says Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic weekly American Magazine. "Displaying the Ten Commandments in a courtroom is something I think should be permitted, but it's not something I would go to war over."

But the issue is unlikely to fade anytime soon. Moore's supporters are in the midst of a "Save the Commandments Caravan," which is transporting a replica of the Alabama monument from Montgomery to Washington.

Americans who say such monuments in the public square are unconstitutional won't back down either.

"We are very slowly becoming aware of the huge number of denominations in the country," says Marci Hamilton, an expert on church-state separation at Cardozo Law School in New York. "It is a pro-religious society. But the majority believes in the right to believe whatever one decides to believe."