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Friday, August 29, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

In the wrong place, in a different time

The monument to the Ten Commandments that sits outside the old Everett City Hall should be carted off to a museum.

If the monument is a religious statement, it is completely inappropriate on public property.

If, as its defenders argue, the stone piece has historical significance, then place it in a proper setting, where it can be preserved as part of Everett's civic story.

Let me fully and boldly embrace the obvious: America is not the same place it was in 1959, when the monument was donated to the city by Everett Aerie No. 13 of the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

Certainly, the tall, stately monument was a sincere gift, presented with the best of intentions. Why not confidently assume that everyone embraced the Ten Commandments as the core of their faith? Wasn't everyone Christian, and if they weren't, how likely were they to complain? Or be noticed?

I am an Episcopalian, a denomination rooted in the Church of England, a favorite Sunday haunt of the nation's Founding Families. The official state church, if an infant nation had wanted one.

Let's see, as a boy, 1959 meant three Sundays of Morning Prayer, with Holy Communion — the looong service — once a month. The minister was a man, my mother wore a hat to worship and the 1928 prayer book was perfection, thank thee very much. Those matronly women in the pews were annually canvassed for hefty financial pledges to run the parish, but would never be candidates to serve on the all-male board that managed temporal affairs.

The joke about the Episcopal Church being the Republican Party at prayer had a ring of truth.

What a difference 44 years make. We live in a dramatically different place, changed by a moral revolution for freedom, immigration, aging, loss of confidence in government and stunning technological changes.

People are having a hell of time adjusting, but our society lurches along for better or worse because our system does not choose sides — especially about something as personal, important and volatile as religious beliefs.

The odious case in Alabama is mercifully drawing to a close. To fulfill a campaign pledge, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore installed a 2.6-ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. He defied federal orders to remove it. Wednesday, it was finally hauled away.

Moore said he was making a statement about the sovereignty of God — the God of Holy Scripture — over the affairs of men. As in the preamble of the Alabama Constitution, he wanted a reminder that in order to establish justice, we must invoke "the favor and guidance of God."

So it was God who inspired generations of Jim Crow segregation laws? Give me a break; that wasn't Moses standing in the schoolhouse door.

No amount of prattle and hyperbole can change the religious message of the Ten Commandments into a quaint historical document. Why would any devout believer wish a gift from God to be so diminished?

Nor will any amount of robust oratory make persons of different faiths or no faith comfortable in the presence of such brand-specific piety in a government setting.

So what do I make of all those choice quotes about the role of faith in shaping America? I believe them, as I do the words of Thomas Jefferson. He had no use for religious tolerance. He believed in religious freedom. Tolerance implies a dispensation that can be recalled and denied.

The monument controversy is not resolved by dotting civic landscapes with religious symbols. The presence of Islamic script from the Quran or a Star of David does not make it all even and right.

I don't want to see a crèche on the courthouse lawn for the same reasons I want the monument removed. Civic property is not a showcase for government-endorsed religious sentiments. I am doubly offended by the notion it would all be fine as long as Santa gets equal time at Christmas.

Frankly, I am tired of Ten Commandment folks taking the Lord's name in vain. Not the cussing variety of offense, but the invocation of God's name and authority for hypocritical and self-serving purposes. They are pious liars about intent.

Religious beliefs: embrace them, worship them, and oh my heavens, try and try again to live them. Don't hijack government to promote a particular point of view.

Everett has worked hard to be a different place than it was in 1959. An old insular mill town is blossoming into a vibrant city. Times do change for the better.

A lawsuit seeks to have Everett's monument removed. Instead of fighting to hang onto a memento of a different time, the city should recognize the mosaic of creeds it lives with today.

Besides, the old City Hall now houses the police department, a temple to plea bargains and discretion. The Ten Commandments are totally out of place.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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