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Monument to an Inglorious Past

Another rendition of the Ten Commandments finds a fitting home.

August 26, 2003|Mary Zeiss Stange | Mary Zeiss Stange teaches religion and women's studies at Skidmore College and with her husband has a bison ranch in Montana.

The separation of church and state has always been a fiction in this country, but never more so than when, in the 1950s, Cecil B. DeMille teamed with the Fraternal Order of Eagles to kick off donations of 4,000 6-foot granite tablets depicting the Ten Commandments to municipalities nationwide.

For DeMille, this was great advertising for his epic movie "The Ten Commandments." The Eagles, which kept the program going at least into the 1960s, declared it a way to fight juvenile delinquency.

The first such monument was dedicated in Milwaukee in 1955, at a ceremony featuring Yul Brynner. It went unrecorded whether this symbolized a change of heart on Pharaoh's part, or whether Moses -- Charlton Heston -- was simply otherwise engaged.

The Eagles' Ten Commandments monuments, like the one erected independently by now-suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, have been the focus of a spate of church/state lawsuits.

So far, the courts have been divided over their constitutionality. One in Grand Junction, Colo., and another on the state capitol grounds in Austin, Texas, have passed muster on "educational" grounds. Yet an identical plaque in Elkhart, Ind., was ruled unconstitutional by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2000. Then, as a few days ago in Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court let that decision stand by refusing to take up the matter. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote on that occasion that " 'I am the Lord thy God,' " was "rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference."

Of course, all these monuments are intended to express a religious preference. Moore's fundamentalist Christian stance and the arrests of 20 or so demonstrators holding a prayer vigil at the site of the Alabama monument make this fact abundantly clear. Indeed, if one wants to talk about faith statements of truly epic proportions, the Eagles' slender slabs are dwarfed by Moore's 2-ton declaration of the godliness of American law.

Among the current welter of lawsuits over Ten Commandments depictions, in jurisdictions ranging from major cities like Phoenix to tiny burgs like Plattsmouth, Neb., the recently settled case of the monument in Miles City, Mont., is instructive.

The Eagles donated the monument to the seat of Custer County in 1968, and no one paid it much attention. But when a Christmas Nativity scene appeared on the courthouse lawn in the mid-1990s, Montana's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union took legal action against both displays.

Three years ago, a Montana district court issued a consent decree in which Custer County agreed to dispense with the Nativity scene and to add four more monuments "of comparative size and quality" -- depicting the U.S. Bill of Rights and suchlike -- to create a constitutionally correct "Evolution of Law" display.

A sign went up immediately on the courthouse lawn, proclaiming it the "Future Site of the Evolution of Law Exhibit." Three years later, however, the law as displayed had still not evolved beyond the Ten Commandments. The ACLU cried foul in June, and by mid-August the county commissioners voted to remove the monument and reinstall it across town, at the Range Riders Museum.

That's an excellent place for it. The museum occupies the site of the fort Gen. Nelson A. Miles built in 1876 when he arrived to direct the Indian war in the region after Custer's demise. Miles was a major strategist in the move to strip Native Americans of their land and culture, a key element of which was the abolition of the Plains Indians' religion.

In 1883, in flagrant violation of the 1st Amendment, the United States officially outlawed the Sun Dance. The Lakota, Cheyenne and Crow would not be allowed to practice their religion again until the mid-20th century, by which time (under President Eisenhower) the official U.S. policy toward Indian culture was chillingly dubbed "termination," and most Native Americans experienced near- total alienation from their religious past. This was all accomplished in the name of the Christian God.

Miles City has, therefore, hit upon a stunningly appropriate placement for its Ten Commandments monument.

It probably won't curb delinquency in this town that houses the state's reformatory for boys. And the frontier setting won't be conducive to conjuring up visions of Moses parting the Red Sea. But to the extent that the monument's journey from courthouse to museum simultaneously illustrates and indicts the things that are done by government in the name of God and law, it ironically accomplishes its goals: It's one part civics lesson and one part morality tale.

And if it helps people see that there is more to history and constitutional law than meets the eye, well, that's a happy ending worthy of Hollywood.

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