In "Braveheart," when evil men slit the throat of William Wallace's wife, it's clearly time to fight. In "The Lord of the Rings," when orcs attack Gondor and Rohan, it's clearly time to fight. But when federal courts overreach, we need to see whether war is required, or whether decisions provide an opening.
Americans during the past few months have disagreed about the wisdom of Judge Roy Moore's placing of a Ten Commandments monument in a manner that virtually assured rejection by federal courts. His critics say he was cruising for a bruising, but his defenders say he was standing for what is right in saying NO to an out-of-control federal judiciary. The defenders say it really did not matter what he said, since federal judges are imperialistic.
Was the war of angry words surrounding the Montgomery, Ala., monument necessary? The record is mixed. Federal courts have approved Ten Commandments displays on government property in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah, ruling that the Decalogue has played a significant role in American history. But Moore supporters could certainly cite a recent Kentucky case in which Sixth Circuit Court judges dinged as unconstitutional Ten Commandments displays in two county courthouses and a school.
That ruling came after officials trying to meet court guidelines had added other historical documents to the commandments display and set up a public forum where citizens could post the historical documents of their choice. Even that wasn't enough. On the face of it, that ruling would support the view that the feds are out-of-control -- and yet, the court panel's majority opinion included not just rejection but challenge. Judge Eric Clay wrote (wrongly, in my opinion) that merely posting the Ten Commandments fulfilled no "educational function," but he went on to opine that the outcome of the case may have been different had the Ten Commandments been "integrated into the school curriculum."
The judge also alluded to previous U.S. Supreme Court musings that the Ten Commandments have a place "in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics. ..." He suggested that the court could look favorably on a display if the Ten Commandments were incorporated into a comparative religion course or a course on how the Founders' religious beliefs affected late 18th century history and the structure of the U.S. government.
That gives us an opening, IF we're willing to work hard on day-in, day-out teaching rather than merely putting up a display. While focusing on private school development and expansion, lets also push hard to teach about the Bible in public schools, as groups like the Bible Literacy Project and Bible in the Schools have done. We should stipulate that, as part of their "core knowledge," all children should know what the Ten Commandments are (and also where the 50 states are).
Let's then place in school lobbies memory aids, such as Ten Commandments displays and maps of the United States, that support classroom teaching. For that matter, citizens need to know the bases of our law, so let's set aside in each judicial building a classroom for seminars on what the Founders of the United States knew. Let's have lobby displays in connection with those classes.
None of this will be easy, nor will it avoid court battles: People for the American Way has already pounced on Bible-teaching attempts in Florida and other states. Our long-term objective should be to have more children attend Christian schools. But if judges give us a way to post the Ten Commandments in a public school, by making them part of "a secular curriculum," let's seize that opportunity. And let's think of other ways to teach about the Ten Commandments, with the goal of having more than just a small percentage of the American public able to identify even half of them.
Our goal should be education, not just proclamation.