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Church-state watchdogs lambast House support of Ten Commandments

WASHINGTON, March 5 (JTA) — Church-state watchdogs were quick to lambast the House’s backing this week of an Alabama judge who hangs a wood carving of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), sponsor of a resolution on the issue, called it “an important symbolic gesture” affirming that the Ten Commandments represent the “cornerstone of Western civilization and the basis of our legal system here in America.” Most Jewish groups had a different take. The resolution “sends a disturbing message of government support of religion and creates atmosphere in which religion is given tacit governmental approval,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement. In February, a U.S. circuit judge ordered Judge Roy Moore to remove the posting of the Ten Commandments from his Alabama courtroom. Moore appealed, and the state Supreme Court has granted a stay to review the matter. Alabama Gov. Fob James promised last month that he would call out the National Guard and state troopers if necessary to prevent any court-ordered removal of the plaque. The so-called “sense of Congress” resolution, which was adopted Wednesday in a vote of 295-125, makes no reference to the Alabama case. It has no force of law and will not directly impact the pending legal case. It simply puts the House on record in support of displays of the Ten Commandments at government offices and courthouses. Nonetheless, opponents criticized the resolution as a blatant effort to intervene in a state court case. “This really just pours gasoline on a fire in Alabama,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United For the Separation of Church and Sate. “The issue here is not church-state separation, nor federalism,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “It is whether we will have a nation ruled by law or anarchy. Representative Aderholt has chosen anarchy.” Not all Jewish groups agreed, however. The Orthodox Union called it “appropriate” for the House to express its support for display of the Ten Commandments. “This is clearly constitutional under the Establishment Clause,” said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs. “To say otherwise is to say that we must also remove `In God We Trust’ from our coinage and from other public buildings.” Legislative observers said the resolution posed a dilemma for a number of lawmakers. “It’s a trap because it sets up a situation where members are forced to be perceived as voting against the Ten Commandments,” one observer said. Of the 25 Jewish members of the House, only four voted for the resolution. Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) was only one of four Republican lawmakers to break ranks with the party on the issue. The three Jewish Democrats who voted for it were Reps. Bob Filner of California, Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and Norman Sisisky of Virginia. During the floor debate, one of the Jewish opponents, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), called the resolution a “denigration of religion.” Such a resolution, he said, assumes that “religion cannot make it on its own.”