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Court Strikes Delicate Decalogue Balance

June 30, 2005
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The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to allow certain displays of the Ten Commandments on public property stay and to ban others may strike zealots on both sides of the secular/religious divide as unsatisfactory.

But the compromise, achieved by a key vote switch by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, was a commendable effort to strike a balance between the demands of extremists on both sides.

By ruling that a Kentucky courthouse display was illegal, the court reinforced the continuing validity of the position that church and state are fundamentally separate. Since the religious purpose of the Kentucky exhibit was beyond question, a bare 5-4 court majority was right to say that it was unconstitutional.

But by also deciding that a Texas monument that included the Ten Commandments among other nonreligious and historical displays was not illegal, the court avoided sending the message that it was banning any form of religious expression in a governmental context. By switching positions and voting with the minority in the Kentucky case, Breyer sensibly set a legal standard that allowed both sides in the controversy to come away with something.

To those who wished for a ban on all such displays, including many in the Jewish community, Breyer's move is a disappointment. Their hard-line "separationist" position may comfort idealogues, but it frightens the overwhelming majority of Americans who worry that faith is being elbowed out of the public square.

At the same time, those advocates of the religious right who've helped to engender legal controversies just to generate cases that might undermine the notion of separation itself should not consider themselves victorious. In both instances, the court has again enunciated the principle that a governmental action whose primary purpose is to promote religion is illegal.

By recognizing that the First Amendment - which protects the free exercise of religion while banning its establishment by the government - is alive and well, the court has protected our freedom and helped promote a civil society.

Politics by Other Means

Under normal circumstances, the election of a new chairman for the Jewish Agency for Israel would not stir much interest beyond the world of organizations and philanthropy. But when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharom tapped Ra'anana mayor Ze'ev Bielski for the post while doing everything possible to spike the rebel candidacy of former minister Natan Sharansky, he turned the election into something of a circus.

In the end, even though Sharansky won the endorsement of Sharon's and Bielski's own Likud Party, the premier was able to force the World Zionist Organization to designate the former hero/refusenik Sharansky as "ineligible" for the job, which controls hundreds of millions of dollars contributed to help immigrants to the Jewish state. The reason for this was that Sharansky is opposed to disengagement from Gaza.

We don't blame Diaspora leaders at the agency for backing Sharon, especially with the Gaza redeployment a month away. Nonetheless, this sordid spectacle did not enhance the prestige of the post Bielski now holds.

We wish the new chairman well, but we also can't help but wonder when Israel's leadership will stop using philanthropic agencies as yet another forum for their own brand of political warfare.

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