William F. Buckley
The ACLU rides again, as we are advised by The Wall Street Journal's Jess Bravin, reporting out of Elkhart, Ind. The script: In 1956, Cecil B. DeMille is promoting his movie, "The Ten Commandments." A judge in St. Cloud, Minn., gets in touch with the great moviemaker, and he has an idea: Combine publicity for "The Ten Commandments" with the elevation of public morals. How? Create memorial slabs of the Ten Commandments to exhibit, in our amber waves of grain and on our purple mountaintops, from sea to shining sea. One of the landing spots for the Ten Commandments monsoon was Elkhart, Ind., and that tablet led to the trauma from which William A. Books now suffers.

That tablet, an idea co-sponsored by Hollywood and the Minnesota judge, was unveiled on Memorial Day, 1958. Not much attention was paid to it, the neglect causing it to be obscured by shrubs, more or less pari passu, if your mind runs that way, with the neglect of the Ten Commandments in the past four decades. But then came a municipal development project and lo! this resulted in the repristination of the tablet, such that even bicyclists coasting by could spot it.

That exactly was what Mr. Books was doing on that day in 1998, bicycling by. He filed an affidavit recording that he was "extremely upset and bothered" to see the Ten Commandments on display because they symbolized a religion he does not practice. So what did he do? He rang 911-ACLU and reported that the Constitution of the United States was being violated in broad daylight in the heart of America.

A federal appeals court in Chicago agreed with Mr. Books, but the legal question has been complicated. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, will defend Elkhart, and he has devised an arresting means of doing so. The Ten Commandments tablets had nothing to do with the propagation of religion, he argues. It had to do with commerce! Therefore, it had a secular purpose; therefore, it escaped the prohibitions of Lemon v. Kurtzman, in which the Supreme Court insisted that any use of religious material in state institutions had to have a clear secular purpose.

So both sides are appealing to the Supreme Court, in an action joined by the state of Alabama whose Senate recently approved (unanimously) a proposed amendment to the state constitution permitting display of the Ten Commandments on public property. Court cases and legislation of that character are pending in a half-dozen other states.


William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

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