This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, a case in which a new age cult has won, in the lower court, the right to place a stone monument inscribed with the "Seven Aphorisms" of its faith in the same park that already contains a similar stone containing the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament.
This is an interesting case for a number of reasons, but what it got me thinking about was the propensity for religious public officials and their lawyers to lie when it comes to defending governmental endorsement of religion. It's my observation the propensity for outright prevarication about officials' motives in these cases is so great that the courts, the media, and the public don't even seem to take notice of it any more. The Pleasant Grove City case demonstrates what a tangled web can be woven when government officials try to get around the Constitution's prohibition of the establishment of religion.
In 1971, the Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the Ten Commandments monument for placement in a city park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah. In 2003, Summum, one of several strange religious groups based in Salt Lake City, applied to the city government for permission to donate their religious monument for erection in the same park. The city fathers rejected the Seven Aphorisms monument. But they didn't tell the truth about why they did so. The real reason that they were rejecting the cult's request was simple: a vast majority of the citizens and officials of Pleasant Grove City believe the Ten Commandments to be divinely ordained by the Creator; none of them think the same of the Seven Aphorisms. Instead of just saying that, the mayor wrote a letter claiming that the city was applying some (made-up after the fact) unwritten rule that allowed them to accept for placement in the park only displays that were relevant to the town's history.
The Mayor told this lie because his lawyer told him that, if he told the truth, his city would be violating the First Amendment's prohibition on the establishment of religion, but that the Court of Appeals had suggested in an earlier case that this "town history" gambit might work. So, the case is grinding on and on wasting dollars and other resources that governments and tax-exempt entities like Summum and the fundamentalist non-profit law firm representing the city could be devoting to worthwhile activities like educating our children or replacing our infrastructure.
There is, of course, a simple way to avoid all this never-ending litigation. Leave the Ten Commandments, the Seven Aphorisms, the crosses, the crucifixes, the Islamic crescents, the Magen Davids, the creches, the menorahs, and all the other religious totems in the churches, mosques, synagogues, and other private property where they belong. But our religious fellow citizens are not willing to do that for a very simple reason: despite what the First Amendment says, they want to establish their religion. Christian fundamentalists believe that this is a Christian nation and that non-Christians are second or third-class citizens, and nothing makes that point like the cross in the city park or the Decalogue in the courthouse square. Putting it on the church lawn next door just won't do, and they feel so strongly on the issue that they're willing to violate the First Amendment AND the Ninth Commandment just to let the rest of know that they're in charge.