"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

Those 10 words, which begin our Bill of Rights, are quite unique. They comprise the only clause in those first 10 constitutional amendments that speaks to the government itself, irrespective of the effect on individuals. They also specify the only subject--religion--in which government is forbidden from involving itself.

The framers knew what they were doing when they placed this Establishment Clause in our Constitution. They carefully examined the history of man, and recognized that real harm inevitably follows the amalgamation of government and religion. People do amazing things in the name of their gods . sometimes wonderful, but often horrendous. Burnings at the stake, the Crusades, the Inquisitions and other abuses were well known to the men who created our Constitution, and--as we can see by looking no further than Rwanda, Serbia, Ireland, the Middle East . or the World Trade Center--their fears that such offenses could continue were obviously warranted.

What's all this have to do with a Ten Commandments monument? Everything. This is precisely how it starts. People don't simply wake up one day and commit genocide. They start by setting themselves apart from others, diminishing the stature of those adhering to dissenting beliefs in small, insidious steps. They begin by saying, "We're the righteous, and we'll tolerate those others." And as the toleration diminishes over time, the inevitable harms are overlooked. It is for that reason that James Madison wisely wrote that "it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties."

When Judge Roy Moore decided to place the Ten Commandments monolith in the Alabama Supreme Court building, he began that first experiment. He told the people of Alabama that his religious belief system was the one that counts. His truths are the "real" truths. His god is the "real" god. This despite the fact that the prototypical freedom proclaimed by our Constitution is freedom of conscience, with freedom of religion set apart with an extra guarantee. There are no "real" religious truths under our government. There are only citizens who have been promised that they will always have the right to determine for themselves what makes sense.

The events now playing out in Montgomery should be a clarion call to everyone, demonstrating exactly why the Establishment Clause needs to be upheld as strictly as possible. Look at what we have: a state supreme court chief justice ignoring a clear order by a federal court because he believes it is his religious duty to do so. How is this in any way different from David Koresh's refusal to abide by the commands of the federal agents in Waco? And look at the response of the citizenry. Judge Moore deserves impeachment, or to be thrown in jail. Yet--because of religion--we find that his illicit behavior is supported by many, as he is virtually deified.

This is the sort of religious fervor that leads to the grievous harms. No one believes a law could be passed denying to people who believe in God the right to hold office, for that obviously couldn't occur within today's religious climate. But at this very moment, in the constitutions of eight states, there are provisions that deny this right to atheists. Even if we don't next deny them the right to vote, or perhaps the right to live in theistic neighborhoods, we have already turned them into second class citizens. And why stop at atheists . how about those Muslims? And Buddhists? And Jews? And Catholics?

It is likely that there will always be invidious discrimination in this country. The diversity of our races, nationalities, genders and religions--which has strengthened our nation beyond measure--will probably remain the root of prejudice and hatred for some. Government can try to change this, or it can simply accept it. What it can't do, however, is participate in it. And when our officials take their oaths of office, they are promising that they won't. Judge Moore broke that promise, and the fact that he did so in the name of a set of politically popular religious ideals does not in any way excuse his egregious conduct.

In this country, no individual or group, no matter how large or powerful, can decree what religious ideals are to be held sacred for the rest of society. As fervidly as Judge Roy Moore believes he is right, there are others who believe just as fervidly that he is wrong. Neither has any right whatsoever to use the machinery of the State to support his or her view. Upholding that principle, the basis of the Establishment Clause, protects us all.

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