Heretic on the Hill: Ten Commandments, Nine Justices, and the First Amendment

It’s hot in Washington. Damn hot. It’s so hot I went by the Lincoln Memorial, and the chair was empty. That’s hot. It’s so hot I didn’t mind at all that my Hill meetings were on Zoom yesterday. I usually offer to come by in person but if someone wants to do it remotely, that’s fine. A lot of Hill staffers are in their 20s so Zoom just seems more natural to them. Yesterday one asked me about the new Ten Commandments law just passed in Louisiana, which wasn’t even the topic of our meeting. Every public school classroom in the state has to begin displaying the Ten Commandments by January 1st.

This is an obvious violation of a 1980 Supreme Court decision, Stone v. Graham, concerning a very similar law passed in Kentucky. That decision was based on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause which has been interpreted for many decades as meaning that the government, including schools, cannot do anything to establish or promote religion. Louisiana is simply hoping that with a different Supreme Court they will get a different answer.

The six conservatives on this Supreme Court lean on history and tradition more than previous courts ever did in deciding cases so Louisiana might get that different answer. However, today’s 8-1 decision that you can take a gun away from someone who received a restraining order for domestic violence offers some guidance on when history and tradition should and shouldn’t be considered relevant to a case. This is an important step because justices can find a historical precedent when it’s convenient and not find one when it’s not. So when that Ten Commandments case gets to the Supreme Court, it will be interesting as well as hugely important. Our coalition member the Freedom From Religion Foundation is one of the plaintiffs suing over the Louisiana law. I’ll keep you posted.

This seems like a good time for a reminder of what the Supreme Court used to be capable of, in a 1943 case where Jehovah’s Witnesses said they should not be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school because of their religious beliefs:

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.” said Justice Robert Jackson. Let’s vote for a president who will pick good justices, and, step two, for senators that will confirm good justices. (That’s not guaranteed in the Senate.) Click here for some secular voter resources. I note that the two most conservative justices are the two oldest, 74 and 75. They won’t last forever. Someday we’ll fly flags at half staff for them.

Thanks to everyone who donated after last week’s appeal. We definitely appreciate it. Normally I’d say it helps keep the lights on but this week it helps keep the air conditioning on. Maybe I should have said thanks to everyone who “chipped in.” It seems like every email I get from a candidate asking for a campaign contribution asks me to “chip in.” That must be the phrase that gets the best response according to the metrics. “The phrase that pays.” We just appreciate your help whatever we call it.


Spreading Happiness

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