Thou Shalt Drop it Already

Here we go again. The Washington Post is reporting this morning that an evangelical group is planning to send a religious message to the Justices of the United States Supreme Court by placing a Ten Commandments monument on the group's private property across the street from the Courthouse.

The move should not spark the sorts of legal fights we've seen lately over the placement of such monuments on public property. The land upon which the monument would rest is not public property. However, the folks at Faith and Action, which the Post describes as a "D.C.-based evangelical Christian group," apparently have to get some sort of "public space" permit from City officials and also perhaps approval from the City's Historic Preservation Review Board. And so far they have been unsuccessful. It's only a matter of time, it seems to me, before this stare-down makes it to court. Uh, that's to regular old court. Not to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The group says it hopes that the Justices see the monument and consider its implications each day as they arrive and leave the court. Hopefully not all the Justices will accomplish this noble goal since some of them apparently still drive themselves to work and you'd like to think they are going to keep their eyes on the road even as they get close to the courthouse.

By  |  June 1, 2006; 8:30 AM ET
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I was under the impression you had to have clearance before you put up any large sign, marker, display, etc. If it is a designated historic landmark, district or area, you may not get approval. This is not new. This is not exciting. This does, however, apply to everyone.

Posted by: Courtney | June 1, 2006 03:15 PM

If this group is allowed to put up their statues, they won't be the last. It's not hard to imagine a Las Vegas-style display of monuments promoting every political viewpoint. One suspects that Larry Flynt may have opinions on freedom of speech that could be expressed in this medium.

Posted by: lart from above | June 1, 2006 03:26 PM

But the US Constitution over-rides any local law or ordinance... so, since their purpose is obviously religious speech they should be allowed to put up their silly display on their own property...

Posted by: Rob | June 1, 2006 03:45 PM

Very well said, this is not a free speech issue, it is a zoning issue, and the courts have ruled again and again that painting your house so stands out from space or putting a giant sign in your yard is not protected speech.

Posted by: Ben in Indy | June 1, 2006 03:47 PM

I agree with Iart. These evangelical groups fail to think about the long term consequences of their efforts. Do they really wish to share the public square with the plurality of believers who will see these efforts as an opening? It won't matter whether their gigantic "graven images" are on public or private property. I am not interested in seeing the satanic commandments in public view. I doubt if the evangelicals would appreciate this kind of competition.

Posted by: Major Pessimism | June 1, 2006 03:47 PM

It is probably not private property. If you look at the plats, you'll see that nobody in the District owns their front yard.

Posted by: Earl | June 1, 2006 03:50 PM

The yard in question is not private property. Like nearly all front yards in DC, it belongs to the city. The private property actually starts at the front door. I'm familiar with this particular block, and I'll bet my copy of the KJ Bible that the church folks don't own the front yard.

As someone that lives in this neighborhood, I think this is fairly stupid. I cherish the fact that my 'hood, while super close to the Capitol and Supreme Court, is still a beautiful neighborhood.

I'd hate for us to get into silly battles like this, which would only serve to make the neighborhood ugly and annoying, regardless of your political persuasion (or lack thereof).

The Post is right - putting something this massive in a front yard requires review by the city and by the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, among other groups. It won't pass muster with either, as the house in question is part of the Capitol Hill Historic District.

And, yes, the rules apply even to landscaping.

Case in point: A house a few blocks away, on East Capitol, was told by CHRS and the city that they actually could not remove a fake deer in the yard. It had been there for so long that it was now considered part of the history of the neighborhood.

And, no, it's not a free speech issue. It's a zoning issue. And, at the end of the day, the church people don't own the land. It's not their decision to make. Yes, that sortof sucks, but the thousands of others in this Historic District have to play by the rules, and so do these folks.

These folks shouldn't get a pass by literally hiding behind the Ten Commandments.

Posted by: Hillman | June 1, 2006 04:04 PM

Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't there a display of the ten commandments inside the Supreme Court building? The room where the Court hears cases has a big mural all around the top with "famous lawgivers of history" represented. I'm pretty sure Moses is included and had thought that to identify him as Moses (and a lawgiver) he has the commandments in hand.

Posted by: confused | June 1, 2006 04:07 PM

A "waist-high" (approx 3-ft) monument is probably no bigger than sculptures and other garden ornaments that are common in this city and for which approval, even in historic districts, is rarely if ever sought or required. I suggest we be very careful about making these people jump through hoops that would not be placed before a less controversial message.

The LAST thing we need to do is to turn these people into martyrs or, worse, hand them a favorable court decision that could have far-reaching and unintended consequences.

Posted by: Meridian | June 1, 2006 04:10 PM

"The group says it hopes that the Justices see the monument and consider its implications each day as they arrive and leave the court."

Well I should think they already do that while they are *in* the court, seeing as the frieze in the Great Hall includes Moses holding the Ten Commandments.

Posted by: lawyerspawn | June 1, 2006 04:15 PM

So, two questions here...

First, didn't Jesus say the following two things:

1. "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you." (Keeping religion a private matter.)

2. "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." (Separation of Church and State)

Maybe Christian groups should try following these two statements from their lord from time to time.

Posted by: J. Crozier | June 1, 2006 04:17 PM

Earl is correct. This is not their private property. Typical of much of the District, at least the part included in the L'Enfant Plan, is that the front wall of the structure is on the property line. The yard space between the main front wall and the sidewalk is owned by the city. Bays may project into this public space, as long as they can be removed if the city wants to use the space; for instance, to run massive utilities through the yards. The Captiol Hill Resotration Society has a good pamphlet which expains the history of this unique situation, one's rights, and one's responsibilities.

Posted by: Margaret | June 1, 2006 04:22 PM


Not only are the above posts correct regarding the fact that the property belong to the city, there is nothing in the Constitution prohibiting zoning laws that control what people put on their lawns, as long as such laws do not specifically target religious expression. The Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." It does not protect your right to do express your religious beliefs in any manner whatsoever (by tatooing them on your neighbors rear end, for instance).

Posted by: argh | June 1, 2006 04:40 PM

In response to confused: No, there is no display of the ten commandments in the Supreme Court building. There are portions of some of them, but it's in a historical rather than religious context. Read this page for the scoop:

Posted by: Craig | June 1, 2006 04:48 PM

Andrew, they need a "public space" permit because it's public space -- that is, as hillman and others have pointed out, public property. I live on the Hill (about 3 blocks from the site), and I don't own my front yard either. This is standard all across Capitol Hill.

I trust you will be issuing a retraction/correction promptly.

Posted by: mark | June 1, 2006 04:48 PM

Confused: you are correct. No doubt the Justices, especially when bored by the case being argued, look up to the Commandments and medidate upon them.

If the Commandments can sway the justices, think of the opportunities for the neighbors to erect other jurisprudentially persuasive lawn ornaments. His-and-his wedding cake ornaments might grace the lawn of the gay couple down the street. The government employee might display a granite whistle. And the congressman greens his garden with $90,000 in cash, frozen in time by glass cubes.

The justices will reach their garage each morning so visually and politically overstimulated they will pine for the days when the occasional porn movie, played in the privacy of their chambers, was all the "art" their duties required them to endure.

Posted by: Meridian | June 1, 2006 04:53 PM

Craig is technically correct -- the full text of the commandments are not there. But most people would understand that the depiction of Moses holding the tablets is a depiction of ten commandments, and it is reasonable to assume that the justices can, as it were, fill in the blanks.

Posted by: Meridian | June 1, 2006 04:57 PM

I do NOT care if the Supremes meditate upon the Ten Commandments. I would not even care if Charleton Heston parted the waters of the Potomac, struck the idols/statues to turn the water into blood. What I DO care about....I want the Supremes to mediate upon the Constitution of the United States. That is suppose to be the basis of their rulings.

Posted by: John | June 1, 2006 05:27 PM

What's next? If the Ten Commandments don't attract sufficient attention, maybe they'll erect giant effigies of unborn babies. Or a really big, bloody crucifix. Perhaps the Ten Commandments are just the thin edge of the wedge...

Posted by: CT | June 1, 2006 05:32 PM

I want to know why people are so cynical about the 10 commandments' content. What is wrong with honoring one's father and mother? What's wrong about not murdering? What's wrong about not stealing? What is wrong with not committing adultry? What's wrong with not worshiping false idols, or with not taking God's name in vain? And what's wrong with a Christian group's quiet propegation of its message from its own headquarters? If people hate Christians, then maybe they should forget who is trying to spread the message and ponder instead what the message itself says! I, for one, think family, social, and official life in this country would be immensely better than it is now if people abided by the 10 commandments. Kids, for example, tend to do a lot better when their parents aren't committing adultry, stealing, swearing, or telling lie after lie.

Posted by: edward t. | June 1, 2006 05:37 PM

That's right, edward t. That's why the 10 Commandments are the thin edge. Seems harmless, innocuous. Then, we slip in the crucifix...

Posted by: CT | June 1, 2006 05:39 PM

Edward T> See, I was raised Christian, so I have a different perspective. This country already has too much Old Testament thinking. I'd rather see more of the Sermon on the Mount, or Jesus casting the moneychangers out of the temple, or Jesus protecting the accused woman from the stones of the mob. We need reminders like "Judge not, lest ye shall be judged" or "Take the beam out of thine own eye" or "Love thy neighbor as thyself" or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." A statue of Jesus washing the sinner's feat, to teach us humility. Washington surely needs more of that.

But we know that the moneychangers will end up owning the temple if we let them in. This week it might be the Ten Commandments, but after that, corporate sponsors with cases coming before the court might pay well to thrust their messages at the justices.

Posted by: lart from above | June 1, 2006 06:28 PM

edward t.

I don't have a problem with the big ten as followed by many (or the hundreds of others ignored and forgotten by most) nor do I have a problem with Christians. I don't even have a problem with the versions of the big ten as translated and retranslated. But I am strongly in favor of separation between church and state and I have a problem when anyone tries to link the two. I can and should be able to choose to (or not to) worship however I wish without some ranting proselytizer forcing their views on and interpretations on me. BTW, in the fervor and zeal surrounding the big ten (and the forgotten hundreds), why has everyone seemingly discounted the BIG ONE...that is "love one another"?

Posted by: Major Pessimism | June 1, 2006 06:37 PM

Why these people have so little regard for the Justices' abilities to handle their own spiritual matters is beyond me! If I were a Justice, I'd be a little insulted. If I even gave it a second thought.

Posted by: salamander | June 1, 2006 07:15 PM

Remember, "separation of church and state" is not in the Constitution; it was an extrapolation in an earlier supreme court ruling. The constitution does not call for separation; it merely prevents the establishment or favoring of any religion by the government.

While there may be logic in the warning about applying different standards to these folks than you would to somebody putting up a bake sale sign or the like, by promoting their intention, this group has self-segregated their action, and therefore a directed response by the zoning authorities is not only reasonable, but necessary.

This article has achieved much of what this group would hope for anyway, I suspect.

Posted by: BVDJ | June 1, 2006 07:46 PM

BVDJ--I am glad you brought up that this country was founded on religious freedom and that the founders never intended for there to be state-endorsed or favored religion. I am continuously baffled by how the engravings of the Ten Commandments keep coming up as a political issue when they so very blatantly endorse a Judeo-Chrisian religious perspective. What about American citizens who belong to OTHER faiths? If they lobbied to have their religions represented in state institutions via scripture from Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, etc religious writings there would be hell to pay (particularly in the latter case). Why is Judeo-Christianity expempted from such scrutiny?

Posted by: nadine | June 1, 2006 08:41 PM

J. Crozier on Jesus and Church/State separation: Jesus' comments were not to separate religion (church is a misapplied word) and the state.

Judaism throughout Early and Middle Judaism (Third to Fourth Century CE - depending on whom you ask, and then back in time) is a theocratic system. The king is to operate under Scriptural guidelines. The Tanakh is replete with injunctions against the king disregarding the Torah.

A Herodian (akin to today's Americans United for Separation of Church and State-types; see Mark 12:13 for the specific reference to the individual's sect) asked Jesus a question to undermine His Pharisaic doctrine (Jesus was a puritan, not a revolutionary). Jesus answered that you give back to the Roman occupiers their own coins. The answer reinforced the theocratic model by confirming the Halacha to remain separate from the ungodly by expelling their money from your possessions, while remaining true to God by continuing to make Temple sacrifices.

The people who heard the answer at the time got it; today's Americans United-types don't.

Moving on to the conversation about America and Christianity, anyone who continues to believe America up to the 19-teens and twenties is anything but a Christian-oriented nation is living in self-imposed ignorance.

It is impossible to read the writings and speeches of America's civic and business leaders and not read relentless citations of the intervention of Jesus, God's Word, Scripture, and Christianity in America's history and fate.

Perhaps most recognizable in history was the duel between positions taken to either defend or attack slavery by using the Christian Bible as the moral justification for the position taken.

In a less volatile, secularized instance (such as it is for the time-period involved), you could also include the messages sent between the mayors of New York and San Francisco with the nation's first transcontinental telegraph transmission as an example of the openness displayed by elected officials to citing Christianity as the spiritual force behind America's progress. I suggest referring to the Washington Post or the New York Times published the next day for the text.

When you read their transmissions, those things if said today would send the Americans United-types into cardiac arrest. It's unbelievable to them their rendition of American history is so far from the truth.

I could make a near endless list, so don't take the mere citation of only one or two here as the complete list available - that would merely put you into the self-imposed ignorance group.

The above referenced Americans United-types come up with a sentence or two from Jefferson, toss in the word Deist, and try to create a history of America as some secular state threatened with hijack by Christianity.

That is pure foolishness, and an insult to the intelligence of anyone who reads the actual speeches and letters written at the time. Anything said about God, even through the administration of FDR, when said today, evokes the mindless hysteria we continuously see from those types.

Their hysteria comes from their own disconnected fantasies about America's past, combined with senseless Biblical interpretations and their deluded interpretation of America's present religious convictions.

Kenneth E. Lamb

Blog index:

Posted by: Kenneth E. Lamb | June 2, 2006 10:11 AM

Why do these so-called Christians have so little use for Jesus? Why is it always the Ten Commandments and never the Sermon on the Mount? Because Jesus supported separation of Church and State. So does the Constitution.
BVDJ is wrong: you overlook the provisions in Article VI that no religious test shall EVER be required as a qualification to ANY office or public trust under the United States.
Revisionist readings of the Constitution should at least consider the entire document.

Posted by: JMB | June 2, 2006 11:01 AM

edward t;

I have no problem with commandments 2-10, but commandment 1, "Do not have any other gods before Me," strikes me as a bit hard to rationalize in the public sphere.

Posted by: Stuart | June 2, 2006 11:34 AM

The American United-types are truly funny thinking people!

I explain why the Biblical citation about Jesus and His remarks about rendering unto Caesar have nothing to do with separation of church and state - in fact, they are a reinforcement of the Jewish theocratic model - and this JMB person blows right by it. He still states Jesus supported separation, all evidence to the contrary.


Even more amazing is his request to examine the Sermon on the Mount.

The American United-types can't get it when there is only one principle at work; the Sermon is totally beyond their comprehension.

Posted by: Kenneth E. Lamb | June 2, 2006 07:04 PM

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