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God and Man in Chester County

The Ten Commandments are being covered up at a courthouse in Pennsylvania.

12:00 AM, Apr 30, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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WHILE DEMONSTRATIONS for and against Israel, the Palestinians, and Jean-Marie Le Pen were hogging the headlines last week, a quintessentially American flap was unfolding in Chester County, Pennsylvania. There, a crowd reportedly reaching 350 gathered in "boisterous" protest as a work crew affixed a cover to a plaque on the courthouse wall that bears--but of course--the Ten Commandments.

The workers were doing the bidding of U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell, pending a decision about the ultimate disposition of the plaque by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Under the controlling precedent, a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court case called Stone v. Graham, it seems likely that the Chester County plaque will have to go.

In the Stone case, the Court held impermissible the state of Kentucky's requirement that copies of the Ten Commandments, though privately paid for, be posted in public school classrooms. The Court could see no secular purpose to this posting, and therefore deemed it in violation of the First Amendment's bar against the establishment of religion.

The law is an ass, implied the demonstrators, who chanted, "You can't cover up the truth!" The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette chimed in yesterday in an editorial: "Even for those who believe (as this newspaper does) that a constitutional separation better serves both religion and the state, the covering of the 82-year-old plaque seemed almost a Taliban-like step, not on the same scale as destroying Buddhist statues, perhaps, but evidence of a kindred intolerance."

Like most analogies to the Taliban, this one involves exaggeration for effect. The removal of a plaque from a public building, should it come to that, cannot deprive the residents of Chester County of their right to read or preach or teach their children the Ten Commandments--any more than it inhibits our ability to broadcast them here. With its totalitarian program, the Taliban would have squashed all of the above.

Still, what will be sad about the plaque's removal is the opportunity withdrawn: the opportunity for citizens to read and ponder part of their rightful heritage--part of the history of Western law, along with Roman law, and the Code of Justinian, and the Magna Carta, and the rights of Englishmen, and the U.S. Constitution (and that's leaving aside the Commandments' truth as instructions from God).

For such an opportunity, Pennsylvanians will have to travel to Harrisburg, to the grandiose chamber in the Capitol building where the state supreme court sits. There, under a stained-glass dome set off with gold-leaf moldings, is a series of murals depicting the evolution of the law. Painted in the 1920s by the feminist pacifist Violet Oakley, it features, directly above the chief justice's seat, a larger-than-life portrayal of Moses chiseling two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments.

"Oakley's Supreme Court tableau is rich in Judeo-Christian imagery and compares law to a musical scale ranging from divine law and the law of nature to more modern common law and international law," writes Amy Worden of the Philadelphia Inquirer. And how could it be otherwise? As the flowery Justice Jackson wrote in a decision quoted by then Justice Rehnquist dissenting in the Kentucky Ten Commandments case: "Music without sacred music, architecture minus the cathedral, or painting without the scriptural themes would be eccentric and incomplete, even from a secular point of view. . . . I should suppose it is a proper, if not an indispensable, part of preparation for a worldly life to know the roles that religion and religions have played in the tragic story of mankind." Hear, hear!

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.