Two of the most recent Supreme Court decisions appear to be on unrelated subjects but I think there is a common theme. In going halfsies on the two Ten Commandment cases before them the court essentially said that displaying the Ten Commandments in or around government buildings was okay as long as they could be considered as historical artifacts and not as something the government says you should live by.
And in their emminent domain-related Kelo decision the court said the same thing about the U.S. Constitution.
There has been a lot of great writing on other blogs about these decisions already, especially on Kelo, and I don’t have much to add in terms of ramifications and analyses. I do have a couple of observations on what I see as the underlying issue before us, however. (If you want ramifications and analyses, I especially liked these postings from Sprucegoose and from Craig Westover.)
Both the Constitution and the Ten Commandments have similar objectives: both set out how we should relate to one another, while the Commandments described how we should relate to God and the Constitution laid out how our government should relate to us. Part of the idea was that following the principles in each would result in a happier, more peaceful and more prosperous life, and that by putting these principles in writing we could hope to avoid large scale abuses of individuals tring to shade these for their own advantage.
Aside from prohibitions on killing, stealing, perjury and the occasional Sunday blue law that may be in effect in some areas, there aren’t a lot of laws on the books enforcing the Commandments. That’s not to say that putting some teeth into the “honoring your father and mother” line wouldn’t be generally beneficial to society. Enforcing that part about “not coveting” however would probably cripple the economy. Still, their presence in the public square and in our awareness established that – however unattainable – there is a standard of right and wrong to aspire that goes beyone legal and illegal. In my opinion, those who find the Commandments offensive are offended more by the suggestion that there should be such a standard of behavior (other than their own) than by the mention of God.
The Constitution, on the other hand, has given birth to thousands of laws, each supposedly adhering to its standard to provide fair play in a world that becomes increasingly ingenious about playing unfairly.
Both the Commandments and the Constitution ultimately depend on an understanding that justice is available, consistent and to be expected. In their recent decisions the Supreme Court has chosen to hide one standard from sight while ignoring the other.