The guns of Elkhart

Posted: Apr 23, 2001 12:00 AM
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.

To formulate an agenda requires some attention to priorities. The first, surely, is the mental health of William A. Books. Is he in a sanatorium? Or was he given treatment in time? Can he still ride his bicycle, or is doing so too keen a reminder of the kind of thing one can run into, when riding a bicycle recklessly about? Will the court order damages for Mr. Books?

And Mr. Books has a provincial ally. He is Michael Suetkamp, an Elkhart factory worker. Suetkamp is in the best tradition of the conciliator, and there are those in Elkhart who think of him as in the tradition of the Missouri Compromise. The Suetkamp Ordinance: Remove the Ten Commandments slab to "a museum or an art exhibit." Or -- Suetkamp's broad range of thought is here in evidence -- construct a companion monument celebrating "the deep and rich history of atheism." If that were done, Elkhart might go on and create a bicycle path past the next atheism statue, guaranteeing Mr. Books safe passage in the park.

The origin of that fuss was an experience of the Minnesota judge who approached Mr. DeMille back in 1956. Judge E.J. Ruegemer had had an experience in juvenile court. A 16-year-old boy was brought in charged with reckless driving. The judge mentioned the Ten Commandments and was stunned to hear the miscreant ask, "What are they?" The judge sentenced the reckless driver to "learn and keep the Ten Commandments as a condition of probation." One thing led to another and the Fraternal Order of Eagles organization, with its membership of nearly 1 million, served as the irrigation system through which the Ten Commandments, variously depicted, were sent abroad.

To do the Lord's work?

Well, we are not allowed to put it that way. To do Cecil B. DeMille's work.

Was Cecil B. DeMille doing the Lord's work?

Conceivably. If a viewer of the movie resolved never again to take the Lord's name in vain, or to dishonor his father and mother, or to kill or steal or commit adultery or covet his neighbor's goods, then it might be said that his behavior was influenced by his exposure to the Ten Commandments, an exposure -- on wide screen -- more vivid than that on a granite slab in Elkhart. And of course the question before the house, really, is whether an injunction to good behavior is exclusively a religious concern. The real threat, as seen by the ACLU, is that religious behavior might give secular behavior a bad name, and that is, surely, unconstitutional.