Precinct 333

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Ninth Circuit In First Amendment Tussle

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, is not know for being part of the religious right. The court, best known for declaring the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional a couple of years ago, is now facing charges from an atheist lawyer that it unconstitutionally promotes religion. At issue is the court’s seal.

The case was brought by an attorney who was admitted to practice before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June. In his lawsuit against the San Francisco-based court, Ryan Donlon said the certificate admitting him contains the court's seal which unlawfully contains what he believes is a tablet object representing the Ten Commandments.

Cathy Catterson, the court's clerk, said the seal highlights a woman, known as "the Majesty of the Law" who is reading a large book. At her feet is a tablet with 10 unreadable lines on it - what Donlon believes is the Ten Commandments.

Catterson said the tablet has "the same shape" of the Ten Commandments but "you can't read the text of it."

She said the drawing became the court's seal decades ago, and is a depiction of a tile mosaic in one of the century-old courthouse's ornate courtrooms.

Now let me see if I’ve got this straight. The mere depiction of tablets representing the Ten Commandments, without a single word upon them, is unacceptable in an allegorical work. The mere presence of the tablet in the context of the larger work unconstitutionally entangles church and state. Have we reached a new level of absurdity in this country?

Like it or not, the Western legal tradition has many sources, one of which is the ancient Hebraic law represented by the Ten Commandments. Its depiction is an acknowledgement of an important source of law. Its presence on the seal in no way requires an affirmation of religious belief or an endorsement of the contents.

UPDATE: Look who weighed in on the case -- and thinks this suit is pretty silly.

Others were skeptical of Donlon's suit, including the lawyer who persuaded the 9th Circuit in 2002 that the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance amounted to a government endorsement of religion.

"I'm not impressed," said Michael Newdow, the Sacramento atheist-doctor-lawyer who ultimately lost his challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court but is still fighting the issue on other fronts. After examining the seal and the markings in question, he said: "It could be the Bill of Rights. I don't know what the heck that is."

Newdow said Donlon appears to be hostile toward religion.

"You look at that seal and you don't get the sense that someone is pushing religion," he said. "It's not the same as putting up a giant monument out of nowhere."


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