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Crusading for a Christian nation

Groups across the country are defying the courts and invoking patriotism as they fight for displays of the 10 Commandments and school prayer.

By Dahleen Glanton
Tribune national correspondent

December 10, 2001

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- On a recent Sunday, 3,000 people showed up at a downtown sports arena for a 10 Commandments rally that had the fervor of an old-fashioned tent revival. Declaring themselves Christian soldiers in a war against evil, they prayed, waved American flags and poured thousands of dollars into collection buckets.

It was a carefully crafted scene that is being played out across the nation as Christian conservatives, energized by the spiritual revival brought on by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, campaign to post the 10 Commandments in public buildings throughout the country. The biblical laws, which some Christians insist should be established as American doctrine, have become a weapon in a long-standing battle to erase the line separating church and state.

In what some experts say is developing into one of the biggest 1st Amendment challenges in decades, Christian conservatives have declared war on civil libertarians for the soul of America. A grass-roots movement that began three years ago in the Bible Belt South has intensified in recent months, with dozens of efforts under way to defy U.S. Supreme Court rulings prohibiting school prayer and the placement of religious symbols in public buildings.

The rallies blend patriotism and religion to raise money and garner support for local officials who have voted to erect 10 Commandments plaques and monuments in city halls, county buildings and courthouses.

"Sept. 11 was a point of demarcation for a renewed interest in this movement," said Charles Wysong, president of Ten Commandments Tennessee, the advocacy and fundraising group that sponsored the Chattanooga rally. "There is a defiance and an unwillingness on the part of God's people to be ruled by groups like the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. Everyone is tired of their feeble arguments, including the courts, and we're not listening to them anymore."

Across the nation, clergy members are leading student assemblies in prayer, schools are requiring a moment of prayer and government meetings are opening with religious devotionals. Several local governments face lawsuits for erecting the 10 Commandments in public venues.

Hamilton County commissioners in Chattanooga voted Sept. 16 to display the 10 Commandments in the county building and two courthouses. In Ringgold, Ga., a town of 2,000 near the Tennessee border, officials recently placed the commandments, the Lord's Prayer and an empty frame with the engraving "This is for those of other beliefs" in City Hall.

The ACLU has sued four Kentucky counties to stop them from posting the 10 Commandments in courthouses. Advocates have raised more than $200,000 for the defense and hope the case will make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ordered prayer out of public schools in 1963. In 1980, the court ruled that posting the 10 Commandments in Kentucky classrooms violated the constitutional prohibition against government-established religion. Nine years later, it upheld a city-sponsored Nativity scene in Pittsburgh that was placed among other religious symbols.

In May, the Supreme Court let stand a federal appeals court ruling ordering Elkhart, Ind., to remove a 6-foot-tall pillar engraved with the commandments on its town hall lawn. Three of the court's conservative justices strongly objected, implying in a public statement that the lower court had erred.

Tennessee counties defiant

In Tennessee, 70 of the 95 counties have placed the 10 Commandments in public buildings or are considering it, according Wysong's group. The ACLU places the number closer to 40.

"Tennessee has been home to a lot of early activity. We continue to have prayer in schools, distribution of the Gideon Bible and the posting of the 10 Commandments in county courthouses," said Hedy Weinberg, director of the ACLU of Tennessee, which plans to file lawsuits within a few weeks.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks, many Americans turned to religion, and church attendance increased 25 percent. By early November, however, attendance had returned to normal levels of about 48 percent, according to a poll by Barna Research Group, which analyzes cultural trends and the Christian church.

But for many devout Christians, the 10 Commandments movement is not just about saving souls or the 1st Amendment. It is about reasserting Christianity as America's dominant religion, a message being preached by some of the nation's most prominent evangelists.

A month after the terrorist attacks, Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, said the God of Islam is different than the God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith and that Islam is "a very evil and wicked religion." He later recanted the remark.

Last month, Rev. James Merritt, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, asked his 16million followers to pray that Muslims convert to Christianity during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Previously, Southern Baptists issued a booklet aimed at Jewish conversions as well as one aimed at those who practice Hinduism. Pat Robertson, who resigned recently as head of the Christian Coalition, has chided Americans for insulting God and said the Sept. 11 attacks occurred because the nation has lost the protection of heaven.

Patriotism and religion

As the line between church and state fades, some civil libertarians said, so has the line between religion and patriotism.

"Too many people are promoting the idea that patriotism and religion are identical," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "If you raise an objection to some unlawful religious practice in a public place, the people who complain are not only labeled anti-religious, but anti-American. You would think we learned from Sept. 11 that the merger of government and religion is a very dangerous thing."

Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, the target of two federal lawsuits for placing a 4-foot-tall granite monument inscribed with the 10 Commandments in the rotunda of the state judicial building in Montgomery, dismissed claims that the doctrines are divisive and may offend non-Christians.

"This is not a nation established on the principles of Buddha or Hinduism. Our faith is not Islam. What we follow is not the Koran but the Bible," said Moore, the keynote speaker at the rally. "This is a Christian nation."

Aside from the 1st Amendment issue, the problem with the 10 Commandments is determining which ones to follow, said Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University. There are 23 verses in the Bible that are part of the commandments, and Protestants, Jews and Eastern Orthodox religions all extract different sets of them, he said.

"There is no single recognized 10 Commandments, even among Christians," Lynn said.

-- Anonymous, December 11, 2001

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