Did you hear about the Supreme Court decision this week related to placing religious monuments on government property? There is a park owned by the city of Pleasant Grove, Utah in which stands a donated monument listing the Ten Commandments. Another small religious group called Summum sought to give the city a monument depicting some of its basic precepts called the "Seven Aphorisms of Summum." The city refused the gift from Summum and the sect sued saying their free speech rights had been violated. On Wednesday the high court ruled that Pleasant Grove does not have to accept the gift from Summam.
The Supreme Court concluded that a lower court went too far when it forced a government entity to effectively endorse the views of a private group on public property. Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the court's decision, wrote, “The Free Speech Clause restricts government regulation of private speech; it does not regulate government speech." In this perhaps narrow sense the ruling makes sense. It seems to me that the lower court ruling could force the government to accept and display monuments from white supremacist religious groups such as the Christian Identity Church or those of Satan worshipping groups.
However, all of this begs the question of whether the city should have accepted the monument to the Ten Commandments in the first place. Now a government entity is placed in the position of deciding which religious teachings should and should not be displayed on public property which opens a different can of worms. It did not escape the notice of the Supreme Court that, while a lower court may have improperly applied the Free Speech Clause, the situation in Pleasant Grove, Utah may run afoul with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In an opinion that concurred with the decision of the court but not with its reasoning, Justice David Souter wrote, "If the monument has some religious character, the specter of violating the Establishment Clause will behoove it to take care to avoid the appearance of a flat-out establishment of religion."
In a statement, J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), said “the government should not be able to pick and choose the favored religion and then erect a monument endorsing the religion’s scriptural precepts.” The BJC had filed a friend of the court brief asking that the Establishment Clause dimension of the case be considered, but the high court did not take up that question. However it probably will in the near future. The attorney for Summam has announced his intention to amend the lawsuit to include church-state separation claims.
It is worth noting that Baptists who were around at the founding of this nation would not have agreed with the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property and they surely would not have quietly accepted the notion of the government picking and choosing what religious teachings it will display. They were strict adherents to the principle of the separation of church and state. John Leland, perhaps the most prominent U.S. Baptist leader of the late 1700's, opposed the closing of Post Offices on Sunday because he said it amounted to government favoritism toward Christian teaching. Leland and the Baptists of his time were firm in their conviction that government should show preference for no religion.
Sadly many Baptists of today reject the view of their spiritual ancestors in this country. Based on the teachings of Christ and their experience as a persecuted minority, Baptists of the late 1700's in this land said what was later affirmed in all three editions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963 and 2000): "Church and state should be separate." For the good of the church and for the good of the spread of the gospel, Baptists at the founding of this nation were among the strongest proponents of a strict church-state separation. Tragically, in more recent times, some prominent Baptist leaders have called the separation of church and state "a modern fabrication" and "the figment of some infidel's imagination."
Would that all Baptists of today would again embrace authentic religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state. After all, when Satan tempted Jesus to use the power of government to accomplish his mission, the Lord turned him down.