George Will

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday rendered two more hairsplitting, migraine-inducing decisions about when religious displays on public property do and do not violate the First Amendment protection against ``establishment'' of religion. In a case from Texas, where a Ten Commandments monument stands outside the state Capitol, the court, splintered six ways from Sunday, said: We find no constitutional violation. The second case came from Kentucky, where the Commandments displayed in several courthouses are surrounded by historical symbols and documents -- e.g., copies of the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Star Spangled Banner -- to comply with the ``reindeer rule,'' more about which anon. On Monday the court recoiled from Kentucky's displays, saying, they are unconstitutionally motivated by a ``predominately religious purpose.'' Not enough reindeer?
    
Never mind the court's minute reasoning about the finely tuned criteria it has spun over the years. Instead, consider -- as the court should have done years ago, when it began policing religious displays -- a few facts about the era in which the Establishment Clause was written.

     In 1789, the First Amendment was drafted by the first Congress -- after it had hired a chaplain. Although President Jefferson's religion was a watery deism, he regularly attended Christian worship services, often with the Marine band participating, in the hall of the House of Representatives. The House was used because of the shortage of suitable venues in the newly founded District of Columbia. Jefferson, who coined the metaphor ``wall of separation'' about relations between church and state, also allowed the War Office and Treasury to be used for religious services that were open to the public. The Supreme Court chamber also was used for services.

     On the Fourth of July, 1801, a reverend took up a collection on the House floor to support services he conducted at a nearby hotel. Jefferson contributed $25 to the cause. The Speaker's chair served as a pulpit for Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and Quaker clergy. In 1813, a Massachusetts congressman reported that ``two very Christian discourses'' were ``preached in the hall introductory to a contribution for the purpose of spreading a knowledge of the gospel in Asia.'' Services were conducted in the old House, now Statuary Hall, until 1857.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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