Since the godless heathens in Washington, D.C., asked Flathead County to remove its monument to the Ten Commandments from the courthouse lawn in Kalispell, the reaction has been predictably defiant and maybe just a little over the top. Not only have the county commissioners refused the request from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, they have started shining spotlights on the monument at night. One commissioner, Gary Hall, vowed to chain himself to the slab of stone if need be to save it. A couple dozen anti-gay, anti-porn activists from Hamilton went to Kalispell to praise the commissioners and to urge the posting of “In God We Trust” placards in all county buildings.
In Helena, where there’s another Ten Commandments monument at the state Capitol, Gov. Judy Martz suggested that any citizen who opposes such displays must be mentally unstable. On one Kalispell morning radio call-in show, they whipped themselves into an angry frenzy at the thought of a group from Washington, D.C., interfering in Flathead affairs. “Don’t mess with Montana,” the show’s host, Benny Bee, warned. “In the words of our great leader, I say, ‘Bring it on.’”
“The people who founded our country founded it on the word of God,” Hall said on the show when he phoned in. “I’d like to see us set a precedent in the whole country by not removing the Ten Commandments.”
Before that can happen, the commissioners must overcome just a few little problems—namely, the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution and a half-century of Supreme Court decisions. In a long line of cases beginning in 1946, the Supreme Court has barred state-endorsed public displays of religious symbols or acts. The question has been whether the government appears to be endorsing one religion over another or any religion over atheism. In the case of monuments to the Ten Commandments, the answer has been consistently yes.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote the commission in February after a few Flathead citizens complained about the monument to the group. It’s up to these citizens, who wish to remain anonymous at this time, whether Americans United will now sue the county, said the organization’s spokesman, Jeremy Leaming.
According to Leaming, “These are people who say, ‘What the hell is this monument doing on government property? Our government is not supposed to be in the business of promoting religion.’ These are people who understand that it’s a government building and not a friggin’ church,” Leaming says. “These county commissioners should just plop this monument in one of their front yards and then they could hold little prayer vigils around it and they wouldn’t have to worry about a lawsuit. I hate to inform them that Montana is part of the United States. They have to abide by the U.S. Constitution whether they like it or not.”
Flathead’s commissioners hope to circumvent the Constitution by surrounding the Ten Commandments with other monuments. Monuments to the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution or the U.S. Bill of Rights have been discussed. A local Native American group wants the display to include the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Fraternal Order of Eagles, which donated the Ten Commandments monument in 1968, has agreed to try to raise money for the new “historical park” at the courthouse.
The idea, not a novel one in battles over monuments across the country, is to claim that the religious object has become so secularized that it’s devoid of religious meaning.
There are at least two problems with this tactic: (1) Once the table is open to proposals for new monuments, fringe elements in the community sometimes get ideas of their own. In Caspar, Wyo., last year, a Baptist preacher demanded a monument declaring that Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998, went to hell because of his sexual orientation. In Ogden, Utah, in 2002, a cult of UFO believers wanted their own monument and, in that case, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a city displaying a Ten Commandments monument must also display monuments espousing more unpopular beliefs. (2) Judges have sometimes prohibited “historical parks” if they see them as mere ruses to allow counties to continue their unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
Only last week, as the Supreme Court debated whether to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati refused to consider lifting a lower-court injunction against McCreary County, Ky.’s “Foundations of American Law” display. That would have contained the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, and the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner.
Sued by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2000, Custer County, Mont., tried to save its Ten Commandments monument by creating an “evolution of the law” park. The county couldn’t raise enough money and had to move the Ten Commandments to private property last September.
Flathead County might not raise enough money for its “historical park,” either. The Eagles so far have pledges of $2,000, plus $600 in actual cash. Not bad, but just one new monument would run $4,000 or more.
Fred Bryant, the retired Navy sailor chairing the fundraising committee for the Eagles, is adamant about keeping the monument. Never mind that he’s unfamiliar with the commandments themselves.
“This is not something that I studied in church or Sunday school,” he says when asked whether he knows the commandments. “Honor thy father and mother, thou shall not kill, whatever. Why should somebody be able to tear it down? That’s legalized vandalism.”