In the library at Gratz College, a full house learned perhaps a new 11th commandment: Thou shalt not build monuments to the Ten Commandments.
The audience noshed on lunch and hamantaschen on Feb. 28 as Gratz President Paul Finkelman led a lively discussion of his experience as chief expert witness in the 2003 lawsuit over the famous Ten Commandments Monument in the rotunda of the Alabama State Judicial Building. The monument was put up by Roy Moore, who was chief justice of Alabama at the time. Now, he’s a controversial figure who lost a Senate race to Democrat Doug Jones in November.
“You could not miss it when you walked in the building,” Finkelman said of the statue, which weighed in at just short of 3 tons. “When I testified against Chief Justice Moore in Montgomery, of course the first thing I did was make a pilgrimage to the courthouse to see the monument — and pilgrimage in this case would be the right word, if I were Christian.”
Lawyer Stephen R. Glassroth, who was Jewish, came to the building one day after the monument “magically appeared on a Monday morning,” saw it, walked out and went to the Southern Poverty Law Center with the intent to sue Moore.
In his discussion, Finkelman covered the details of the case, which became known as Glassroth v. Moore, as well as Moore’s belief that the Ten Commandments serve as a moral foundation of American law. Therefore, according to Moore, it was not a religious monument but a monument to American history — which Finkelman set out to disprove.
Of course, there were other parts of Moore’s argument that were problematic, too.
“My favorite moment of the examination of Roy Moore — this is direct examination — is when we asked him, ‘Wouldn’t putting up the Ten Commandments be offensive to people in Alabama who don’t have the Ten Commandments as part of their religion?’” Finkelman remembered. “And Moore said, ‘Well, everyone believes in the Ten Commandments.’ And our lawyer said, ‘Well, what about Hindus or Buddhists or Sikhs?’ … And Roy Moore, under oath, said, ‘Well they’re not real religions, so they’re not protected by the First Amendment.’”
Finkelman paused as the audience recovered from incredulous gasps and head shakes in disbelief.
“For those of you who are lawyers, I thought at this point our side should’ve moved toward what’s called summary judgment, where the judge simply rules you win, you lose, it’s over. But the trial continued to go on.”
The decision that ruled that the monument was a violation to the Establishment Clause — a decision made by a lower appeals court that was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit — also allowed Finkelman to explore a key obstacle of the Ten Commandments themselves: translations.
Lunch-and-learners were given a packet that included several summaries of the Ten Commandments as described in various religions: Jewish, traditional Protestant, Roman Catholic and Lutheran.
Changes as seemingly small as “thou shalt not kill” to “thou shalt not murder” create larger implications.
There is also the issue with numbering, Finkelman said.
When thinking about a monument that has the Ten Commandments on it, it raises the question of what numbering system to use, Finkelman noted, such as Roman numerals or Arabic numbers. Or even Hebrew letters, which have numeric symbolism.
He led the audience through several interpretations of the Ten Commandments and differences in order of commandments. For instance, the Protestant and Jewish first and second commandments are different, as are the Catholic Ten Commandments.
“Are you all confused enough?” Finkleman quipped.
He shared the story of an Irish innkeeper who noticed that some of the items in the inn were disappearing. So he posted signs to “Remember the Seventh Commandment,” which in Catholicism is against stealing. However, these guests were Protestant and the seventh commandment bars against committing adultery. Needless to say, it didn’t have the effect the innkeeper sought.
But the key argument on which Finkelman sought to shine light was Moore’s incorrect belief that the commandments inform the basis of American law. Finkelman set to make the distinction that “the Ten Commandments are a moral code; it’s a guidance for how people ought to behave, but it is not in fact the basis of law.”
Finkelman was subsequently cross-examined for a few hours, which he said was “fun” because “Moore’s lawyer was not all that bright.” The lawyer said he had “one more question” before proceeding to ask three.
Afterward, he took questions from the Gratz audience that ranged from the role of government in religion to the guidelines around other divisive monuments, like those found largely in the South of Confederate soldiers.
For guests of the lunch and learn, it was an informative afternoon.
Ivy Mermelstein was not too familiar with details of the case before coming to the presentation.
“I was interested in the topic,” she said. “I thought it was very informative and also I thought it was well presented with anecdotes and facts.”
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