November 11, 2003

November 11, 2003 | Commentary on

Veterans, the Courts and Religious Liberty

As Americans across the land pay tribute to our men and women in uniform today, our courts are systematically dismantling many of the rights that thousands have died on lonely battlefields to protect.

While American soldiers and sailors risk their lives every day in foreign lands and waters, religious freedom is quietly being destroyed right here at home.

Take for example, the case of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's refusal to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse in Montgomery, Ala. A few short weeks ago, the nation watched in disbelief as the monument was removed by the dictates of a federal court order. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear Judge Moore's request for an appeal of the lower-court ruling.

Barry Lynn of the American Civil Liberties Union, who is attempting to expunge much of America's history from government properties, touts the refusal as an action that "enhances religious liberty for everyone." Many conservatives who don't agree with Lynn's logic also don't see the Court's decision as a disaster. This isn't the "right" case, they say, to set rules on where and when the commandments can be displayed. Perhaps there is a better case "out there." Then again, maybe not. One thing is certain: You don't have to be a Christian - as I happen to be - to know this decision further endangers religious liberty for everyone.

To think otherwise flows from a profound misunderstanding of what the Founding Fathers meant by those familiar words of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..." The real question is, does Judge Moore's monument constitute an establishment of religion?

Of course not. There's no question this country was founded on Christian principles. And as I wrote last week, the Ten Commandments are prominently featured above the very Bench upon which the Supreme Court Justices are seated. Every session of Congress is opened in prayer; public officials are sworn into office with their hand on the Holy Bible; our currency bears the inscription, "In God We Trust." The list goes on and on. Ours is a nation rich in Christian history, and Judge Moore's monument is no different from the thousands of other references to God and America's longstanding faith in Him. (Visit the online version of "The Founder's Almanac" to learn more.)

But that doesn't mean other faiths aren't welcome - America also has a tradition of welcoming and protecting the rights of everyone from pagans to atheists. As Thomas Jefferson said, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god," And absent injury, government has no business interfering with religious freedom.

Even before the Constitution was written, our Founders realized that what set this country apart from any other was the notion that the power of the government comes not from royalty or despots but from God. Consider these words, written by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights ..."

We don't have the rights Barry Lynn seeks to defend because our government gives them to us. Our rights - the rights that make our country the beacon of freedom of the entire world - come from our Creator. For a government, or the courts, or enemies at home or abroad to try and destroy those rights is nothing short of evil.

No one - not even Judge Moore - is saying one must observe the Baptist faith or the Church of God faith or Catholicism. That would be establishment of religion, and that is what the framers sought to prevent in the Bill of Rights. What Judge Moore is saying is simple and absolutely correct: Our rights flow from God, and it is his right to proclaim the fact that he believes it.

Contrary to what we sometimes hear from the opponents, this truth sets us free. The more we allow private moral restraint to guide our behavior, the less need we have for government to do so. In other words, as Edmund Burke pointed out, liberty without virtue is the "greatest of all possible evils ... it is madness without restraint."

My husband, father, uncle and father-in-law are all veterans. As I honor them today - and those of you who have served to protect our freedoms - I pray that your many sacrifices will not be in vain. America must never forget that Rome fell not at the hands of her enemies, but from within. We are no less vulnerable to decay and destruction if we attempt to deny our citizens with inalienable rights or the God who blessed us with them.

Rebecca Hagelin is a vice president of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Rebecca Hagelin Senior Communications Fellow

Reprinted with permission of World Net Daily