WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Somebody's always accusing the U.S. Supreme Court of being politically incorrect. Now the court is being accused of being religiously incorrect.

So, far the court doesn't much care. A coalition of 16 Muslim organizations asked back in February that Mohammed's face, in deference to Islamic beliefs, be sandblasted off the north wall of the high court's chamber, where it is etched in marble. Islamic tradition forbids artistic depictions of Mohammed because they might encourage some believers to pray to someone other than Allah.


The Muslim groups offered to pay for the work, but Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has told them, in effect, to forget it. The wall art is not a form of idol worship, he wrote to the offended groups. The ivory-colored friezes, carved in Spanish marble, have been in place since the building opened in 1935. They are intended only to honor Mohammed in a procession of 18 of history's great lawgivers, including Confucius, Moses, Napoleon and Charlemagne.

Besides, Mr. Rehnquist wrote, it would be against the law to change it now. He cited a 1949 statute that outlaws the removal or injury of any statue in or around the Supreme Court building.


In other words, you will be offended when I say you should be offended.

The thought of changing the law might occur to the chief justice and to Congress if their real concern was honoring religious leaders like Mohammed and avoiding offense to believers. After all, Congress responds with remarkable speed and efficiency when it thinks Judeo-Christian traditions are being offended.

Support for a defiant judge

For example, less than a week before Chief Justice Rehnquist released his letter, the House voted more than 2-to-1 to support an Alabama judge who is defying orders to stop displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.

For two years, Judge Roy Moore, a Baptist, of Alabama's Etowah County has been fighting to keep a wood carving of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. The First Amendment specifically protects individuals from the establishment of religion by the state. Yet Alabama Gov. Fob James Jr. has vowed to call in the National Guard to back the judge.

If that brings to mind images of former Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus calling out the National Guard to prevent black students from entering Little Rock High School in 1957, that's probably precisely what Governor James has in mind. President Eisenhower, in a historic show of force on behalf of civil rights, federalized the National Guard and ordered the guardsmen to escort the teens to school. Mr. James, a Republican, probably would just love to put President Clinton in the awkward position of removing the Ten Commandments from a courtroom.

Back in Congress, Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., has proposed a "Religious Freedom Amendment" to the Constitution that would allow voluntary prayer in schools and other public property. The conservative Christian Coalition has pledged $1 million to get the amendment passed.

It is not enough for these folks that kids pray at home, in church or in other private places. They insist that prayer also be allowed in school, where it can infringe on the rights of others. To those who are offended, the message is clear: You'll be offended, when we say you are offended.


Considering the opportunities for mischief and outright abuse that state-connected religious activity allows, the Framers knew what they were doing when they wrote the First Amendment.

Representative Istook boasts that his proposed amendment has only 52 words. The Rev. Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has the right response to that. "Currently the Constitution has only 16 words about religion," he said, "and they got it right the first time."

Religion is an easy refuge for ambitious politicians. The fight for Mr. Istook's amendment, like the fight over Judge Moore's plaque, is inflamed by the ludicrous notion that Christians are somehow under siege in America. Far more common are cases of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or some other religious minority finding their beliefs under siege, often from otherwise fair-minded Christians. Government does religion its best favor when it allows free expression in private, not when it forces expression on others in public.

Since Islam is America's fastest-growing religion, the day may come when Muslims gain enough clout to change the artwork in the Supreme Court building. But it should not have to come to that. Government honors religion best when it respects all equally and avoids playing favorites.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/28/97