A tale of two clauses

Attorneys for the ACLU and other groups continue to chip away at our country's Christian heritage, filing and winning frivolous lawsuits that have banned the Ten Commandments, Latin crosses, Boy Scouts of America and the Pledge of Allegiance from public display, gathering or utterance. These cases revolve around the "separation of church and state" doctrine, descended from two brief statements contained in our First Amendment: the establishment clause and the free-exercise clause.

The establishment clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion... ") protects us from the evils of state-mandated religion. The free-exercise clause ("...or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...") guarantees our right to practice the religion of our choice.

These two clauses, taken together or separately, do not authorize our courts to remove religious symbols from public display. They do not prohibit the public utterance of religious convictions. They do not justify monetary gain by those who are "offended" by such religious expression.

The establishment and free-exercise clauses do not imply a complete separation of church from state; that arrangement certainly did not exist when the Constitution was ratified in 1787. So why is the establishment clause being used in the 21st century to extort millions of dollars from local governments that permit public monuments with Christian symbols?

When Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter in 1802 that mentioned a "wall of separation" between church and state, he wrote that phrase with a specific intent: churches have the right to practice their faiths without federal interference. Jefferson's comment had nothing to do with the removal of "offensive" Christian symbols from public land.

Two centuries later, Jefferson's "wall of separation" has been twisted into a crusade that threatens our thousands of war memorials with extinction; if they are engraved with a cross symbol, they are fair game for demolition. That's why the cross at the Mojave Desert Memorial is currently shrouded in tarpaulin: someone claimed it violated the "separation" doctrine, and the 9th Circuit Court agreed.

The problem is, these court cases fail to recognize the historical and cultural significance of our Christian symbols. We cannot erase our own history, as the Ministry of Truth did in Orwell's "1984." We cannot pretend to be a godless state, as the Soviet Union did. The free-exercise clause protects our freedom of religion, but it is being used by some to denigrate the spiritual dimension of our national history - and make a lot of money along the way.

Many towns and municipalities have refrained from defending themselves in lawsuits filed over the public display of religious symbols. They simply can't afford to pay the legal fees, which can be quite substantial.

The American Legion has urged Congress to amend the Civil Rights Attorney Fees Act of 1976, so that attorneys can no longer earn money from frivolous establishment-clause lawsuits. Until the Supreme Court weighs in on this issue, we can at least try to make lawyers pursue such absurd litigation on their own dimes.