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> Columns > Boston Globe > An equal place for all beliefs

An equal place for all beliefs

By Cathy Young | November 25, 2002

The latest skirmish over religion in the public square has to do with the ten commandments monument installed by Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, in the lobby of the court building. A federal judge has ruled that the granite monument, which Judge Moore put up last year without his colleagues' knowledge, amounts to state establishment of religion and must be removed in 30 days. Moore and his supporters promise to resist.

The issue seems pretty straightforward. The Ten Commandments are not even an abstract statement of belief in a Creator. They belong to two specific religions - Judaism and Christianity - and include a prohibition on worshipping other gods. Some view the monument as implying an endorsement of the judge's personal brand of evangelical Christianity. The plaintiff who filed the legal challenged is Jewish. Moore asserts that the monument is not about imposing a religion but about acknowledging the historical role of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the Ten Commandments in particular, as the foundation of the American legal system. Some conservative commentators share this view.

The "It's about tradition" argument would carry more weight if the Ten Commandments had been installed at the Alabama State Judicial Building as part of a larger display honoring the great lawgivers and legal codes of the past. The heritage of Greek and Roman antiquity is just as important a foundation of modern democracy as the Bible.

Are Hindus, Buddhists, or agnostics who come to the judicial building and are greeted by this monument likely to feel that this public space does not belong to them, and that they are lesser citizens? Clearly, the answer is yes - particularly since Judge Moore has not been shy about injecting his religion into his rulings. Last February, he referred to homosexuality as "an inherent evil" in a decision that stripped a lesbian mother of custody.

More complex is the case of Darrell Lambert, a 19-year-old Eagle Scout in the Seattle area who is in trouble with the Boy Scouts because he doesn't believe in God. Lambert spoke up at a Scoutmaster training program after the district committee chair of the organization's Chief Seattle Council asserted that "anybody that doesn't believe in God isn't a good citizen." After declaring himself an atheist, Lambert, the recipient of Scouting's highest achievement award, was given a week to either accept God or give up his badge.

Lambert's supporters hail him as a hero. His detractors brand him a liar because he, an atheist, repeatedly said the Scout oath which includes a vow to "do my duty to God." (So much for claims that the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance do not violate an atheist's conscience, being a mere ritual.) The officials in Lambert's troop reportedly knew of his beliefs all along.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that, as a private organization, the Boy Scouts have the right to reject gays. Presumably, the same applies to atheists.

Freedom of association is a vital principle. But the Scouts hold a special place in American public life as a group that trains boys for civic virtue, self-reliance, and other qualities of mature adulthood. It receives government subsidies and is deeply entangled with public institutions such as the US Army and local police departments. Moreover, it has no real competitors. If someone started an inclusive group pursuing similar activities, its members would not enjoy the same benefits as the Boy Scouts.

Do some liberal secularists go too far in seeking to purge religion from all public spaces? Yes. A recent article in the Dallas-Forth Worth Star-Telegram sternly chided the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in Grand Prairie, Texas, because the last 20 minutes of the two-hour show told the story of - gasp! - the birth of Jesus. "To lure spectators of all faiths (and nonfaiths) with the promise of an entertaining holiday revue, and then to ambush them with Christian theology, is dated and borderline offensive," intoned the writer. But those spectators know they are going to a Christmas show, and there are plenty of other events to attend.

The United States has an overwhelmingly Christian population. This means that people of other faiths and nonfaiths must accept living in a culture where they will often encounter expressions of the majority faith. To try to suppress them is a form of intolerance, too. But we are also a nation with no state religion. In the courthouse and in other public institutions, citizens of all beliefs should feel equal. And to impugn the patriotism and good citizenship of people with the "wrong" beliefs is a repugnant form of bigotry.

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