Tables turning: courts disagree on the legality of slabs etched with the Ten Commandments – Law

Tables turning: courts disagree on the legality of slabs etched with the Ten Commandments – Law – Brief Article

Jabeen Bhatti

When director Cecil B. DeMille commissioned stone slabs etched with the Ten Commandments to promote his blockbuster movie of the same name, he never dreamed they would cause a constitutional furor. But almost 50 years later, the slabs are being struck down by the courts–literally–one by one across the nation.

The furor had an unlikely beginning in a St. Cloud, Minn., courtroom more than a half-century ago. In 1946, juvenile-court Judge E.J. Ruegemer confronted a defiant 16-year-old boy accused of causing a serious crash by driving recklessly. The judge asked the boy what the Ten Commandments were. The boy said he didn’t know. Appalled, Ruegemer took out a Bible, handed it to the boy and told him his sentence was to learn the Ten Commandments and obey them.

The incident prompted the judge to mount a campaign to spread the message by placing nondenominational prints of the Ten Commandments in courthouses across the nation. “I thought that if the Commandments could be placed in courtrooms, then judges could point them out to offenders,” recalls Ruegemer, who will turn 100 in July.

Enter Hollywood. In 1956, DeMille remade his 1920s classic, The Ten Commandments. He heard about Ruegemer’s efforts and saw a way to promote his movie and morality. Soon stone slabs etched with the Commandments were cropping up in parks, state-capital lawns and courthouses around the country. Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and other cast members were dispatched to places such as North Dakota, Wisconsin and New York for the dedications.

In the ensuing decades, some 4,000 stone monoliths sat in increasing obscurity. In the 1990s, however, protests launched by offended citizens and civil-liberties groups were igniting arguments in Indiana, Nebraska, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Colorado and other states. This March, for example, a federal court ordered Milwaukee to remove the statue from City Hall, while in April, the City Council in Lacrosse, Wis., voted to keep the statue in a public park. About two dozen other jurisdictions are engaged or about to engage in legal battles over the statues.

The federal rulings have been mixed. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Elkhart, Ind., in its jurisdiction, ruled last year that the statues must go. But two circuit courts have sided with the statues’ supporters: the 10th Circuit, which ruled in a Colorado case, and the 4th Circuit, which ruled in a North Carolina case. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that such displays are religious in nature unless integrated into exhibits of historical documents.

Proponents argue that the Ten Commandments are not just religious edicts but also have historical and cultural value as the basis of Western civilization and secular law. “This is part of who we are as American people,” says Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a group that focuses on family and religious issues and is involved in most of the cases around the country. “They are treating the Ten Commandments as if they were pornographic. These statues have a historic significance and were placed for a secular purpose, not to establish religion.”

Opponents say there is no way around the fact that the Commandments are religious. “There is no secular purpose in placing the Ten Commandments” in a public arena, says American University law professor Jamin B. Raskin, a First Amendment scholar who believes the Supreme Court should revisit the matter. “It is equally insulting to the religiously devout and atheists to assert that it is not a religious document.”

The strange origins of the contentious battle aren’t lost on Raskin, however. “This whole thing started as a movie-marketing scheme” he says.


Unsuitably Suited?

The sartorial demeanor of Britain’s well-heeled barristers came under close scrutiny in May when the London-based Law Society told their highest-profile solicitors to rid their wardrobe of pinstripes and polka dots. The attire, apparently, is alarming the public.

“You should choose carefully what you are going to wear and keep your clothes simple and businesslike,” the organization said in an advisory memo to 300 members who act as spokesmen or make media appearances. “Avoid loud ties, pinstripes and polka dots, or anything that could distract the viewer,” the memo continued, noting that the public decides immediately “if you look professional or trustworthy.”

In addition, the British lawyers were told to check themselves for dandruff, wear makeup if necessary and be sure to get their law firm’s logo in the camera shot, as long as it is a “positive story.”

Do American lawyers get similar hand-holding? Professional organizations on these shores are steering clear of advising on fashion sins.

“We have no official wardrobe recommendations, no policies, no guidelines, no memos on wardrobe for our membership,” says Lori Boguslawski of the Chicago-based American Bar Association (ABA).

“Advice on clothes? We don’t do anything like that,” says Carlton Carl of the American Trial Lawyers Association. “No policies or guides or anything.”

Perhaps some lawyers could use an image reinvention, though. Americans see them as “greedy, manipulative and corrupt,” according to an ABA survey released April 26. They fail to communicate clearly and are trusted by only 19 percent of the respondents.

Meanwhile, the American legal profession seems to be policing itself, at least in the fashion arena. Lawyers are abandoning “business-casual”–the practice of wearing khakis rather than worsted in the name of hip progress–not to mention select high-tech clients who favored the laid-back approach.

“The business-casual backlash has begun,” writes Dallas lawyer Kathleen Wu in Texas Lawyer. “Lawyers are paid a lot of money to inspire confidence, and it’s hard to do that when you look like a creature from a Gap ad.”


COPYRIGHT 2002 News World Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group