Christianity, the Constitution, and the Courts

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

After almost a year of legal and religious wrangling that ended with a showdown on the courthouse steps, the granite monument of the Ten Commandments that once graced the Alabama Judicial Building's rotunda now sits in storage. Placed on the rotunda two years ago by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, a federal judge in November 2002 ruled the monument violated the establishment clause in the First Amendment and ordered its removal. Appeals failed, Moore defied the federal order, prayer circles went up around the monument, and a media circus ensued. In the midst of the furor, how did the public feel about the situation?

Americans Disapprove of Ten Commandments Ruling

According to an Aug. 25-26 Gallup Poll*, Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of the court order to remove the monument, by a margin of 77% to 19%.

This disapproval, while more pronounced in some groups than in others, cuts across demographic lines. For example, although there is a difference between genders, strong majorities of both genders say they disapprove; 83% of women oppose the ruling, compared to 71% of men who oppose it.

As may be expected, Republicans are more likely to disapprove of the ruling than Democrats are, and conservatives are more likely to disapprove than liberals are. But even among liberals and Democrats, majorities disapprove.

Are Federal Courts Hostile Toward Christians?

Last year's federal court ruling that the Pledge of Allegiance should not be recited in public school classrooms (because it includes the words "under God") garnered a similar reaction from the public. According to a June 2002 Gallup Poll, 14% approved of that federal court ruling, and 84% disapproved of it.

It may be tempting to conclude that the intense opposition to these rulings suggests a general tendency for federal court rulings to be unsympathetic to religious -- and specifically Christian -- groups. But most Americans don't feel that way. When asked if they think federal courts have generally been supportive, neutral, or hostile toward Christians in their rulings, a clear plurality (42%) of Americans think the courts have been neutral, and 16% actually think that federal rulings have been supportive of Christian religions**.

There is, however, a red flag here: A third of Americans (33%) do think the federal courts are hostile toward Christianity. It is an essential underpinning of the American judicial system that all are equal in the eyes of the law, and that "justice is blind." The fact that a third of the population believes the courts are openly hostile to particular religious groups should be a cause for concern. To these Americans, justice is not blind.

Bottom Line

Americans seem to feel a strong emotional tie to the Ten Commandments. While they believe in the separation of church and state, they do not want to write God completely out of the picture, either -- and they are not quite sure how to reconcile these two ideas. The Ten Commandments monument may, for many Americans, be a symbol of God's place in civic life. For those Americans, the removal of the monument may be a metaphorical wrenching of God from society.

Gallup results indicate that the disapproval of the federal court order to remove the Ten Commandments monument is more a situational disapproval than a general disapproval of the court system. While the majority of Americans dislike this particular court order (as they disliked the 2002 ruling on the Pledge of Allegiance), most seem to believe that the federal courts are not biased in their overall handling of religious cases.

On the other hand, the significant number of Americans who think that the courts are hostile toward Christianity suggests that this highly publicized case and the emotionally charged protests surrounding it have the potential to create a strong backlash against future court decisions enforcing the separation of church and state.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 514 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 25-26, 2003. Based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

**Results are based on telephone interviews with 495 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 25-26, 2003. Based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

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