S.C. Legislature: Lord's Prayer a Legal Document

A recent bill contrives to add the Lord's Prayer to the list of documents to be included in "educational and informational material regarding the history and background of American law."
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As recent court rulings have shown, a nearly sure-fire tactic for getting away with displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools and other government buildings is to make this list of religious edicts part of a larger display that includes secular historical and legal documents. In South Carolina, a bill recently signed into law by Gov. Mark Sanford takes this strategy to a new level, contriving an historical reason to add the Lord's Prayer to the list of documents to be included in that state's government displays of "educational and informational material regarding the history and background of American law."

In the South Carolina bill H. 3159, (now Title 10, Chapter 1, Section 168 of the state's code of laws), number eleven in a list of thirteen documents to be included in these "American law" displays is the Lord's Prayer, for which the bill's authors concocted the following historical pretext.

(11) The Lord's Prayer, used to teach people how best to seek their daily needs, is a model of philosophy and inspiration for legal and moral systems throughout the ages. In the colonies, James Oglethorpe brought debtors to freedom in our neighboring State of Georgia in remembrance of 'forgiving our debts as we forgive our debtors'.

This invention of a connection between Oglethorpe's founding of Georgia and the Lord's Prayer is not only ridiculous from an historical perspective, but is completely unsupported by the obscure legal authority cited by the South Carolina Attorney General in his written opinion on how the display of this prayer would withstand constitutional challenges.

First of all, the story of James Oglethorpe bringing debtors to Georgia simply isn't true. Oglethorpe did initially include this idea in his plan for the colony, but it didn't end up happening. It turned out that there were plenty of poor tradesmen, farmers, and other desirable "worthy poor" who were willing to to emigrate from England to the new colony, so recruiting the colony's labor force by springing debtors from prison just wasn't necessary, and that part of the plan quickly fell by the wayside.

Then, there's the ludicrous and completely fabricated addition to this already untrue story to connect it to the Lord's Prayer -- that Oglethorpe's idea to bring the debtors to Georgia was "in remembrance" of the prayer's "forgive our debtors" line.

Oglethorpe, a military officer and member of Parliament, became aware of the gross mistreatment of debtors in the British prison system when his friend Robert Castell, jailed for debts he incurred while writing a book on ancient architecture that didn't sell, died in London's Fleet Prison in 1728. Under the system that existed at the time, imprisoned debtors were required to pay for their own room and board in the prison, which, of course, was virtually impossible without outside help because, being prisoners, they had no way to earn money. Castell died from smallpox, contracted when, unable to pay his room and board fees, he was thrown into a cell with a prisoner who had the disease. The death of his friend led Oglethorpe to launch a vigorous campaign for prison reform.

An investigation by a parliamentary committee, chaired by Oglethorpe, resulted in some improvements to the prison system, but did not address the underlying problem of England's worthy poor -- the large numbers of industrious people who had become poor for reasons other than an aversion to work. Among the worthy poor, for example, were victims of the "South Sea Bubble," formerly well-to-do and working people of all sorts who had speculated in South Sea Company stock when that company was granted a monopoly to trade with South America. The quick rise of South Sea stock sparked a general stock buying frenzy, and when the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720, thousands of investors lost everything. These were the kind of people Oglethorpe and the other trustees of the Georgia colony were looking for. Potential colonists were carefully chosen and interviewed to ensure that the reason for their poverty was not idleness, but merely unfortunate circumstances, and that they had some skill that would be useful or necessary in the new colony. None of these original colonists came from the debtors' prisons.

In his "opinion regarding the constitutionality of H. 3159," South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster cites the expected court rulings on the constitutionality of displaying the Ten Commandments as part of a larger display, then gets to the Lord's Prayer. Here, McMaster really has to reach. The legal authority he resorts to is Christopher G. Weeramantry, a former Judge of the International Court of Justice, the Hague. (Apparently, McMaster has forgotten about the right wing's outrage over the Supreme Court's use of international law in interpreting our Constitution.)

This is what Attorney General McMaster thinks will make these government displays of the Lord's Prayer withstand the inevitable constitutional challenges:

The Lord's Prayer, like the Ten Commandments, is included in the display as part of a much broader purpose -- to instill respect for law and to promote civic virtue. Like the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer has been viewed by one scholar, a Judge of the International Court of Justice, the Hague, as possessing this independent purpose:

'[i]n short, reciting the Prayer is a commitment to the principles it contains; and each time the Prayer is repeated, there is a renewal of that pledge. In lawyer's language, one cannot blow hot and cold, affirming in words what one repudiates in action. The Prayer is a supreme recognition that heavenly duty is to be performed on earthly soil.

'Viewed this way, The Lord's Prayer contains a large number of basic principles underlying law and human rights which, if practiced, offer us a way out of the paths of violence and self-centeredness which threaten to lead humanity to self-destruction through another century of violence.'

Weeramantry, 'On Earth As It is In Heaven: A Vision of World Order For the 21st Century,' 2 Tulsa J. Comp. and Intl. Law, 169, 172 (Spring, 1995). Thus, in our opinion, the Lord's Prayer is here being utilized by the General Assembly as part of the display for a secular, rather than a religious purpose -- the promotion of a sense of history and respect for law.

What McMaster quotes is not from any legal ruling, or even a paper on a particular legal issue or case. It's a 1995 speech given by Weeramantry at the University of Tulsa in commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Weeramantry's speech was based on a book he was writing at the time, The Lord's Prayer: Bridge to a Better World, which was published in 1998 by Liguori Publications, a Catholic ministry whose mission is "to spread the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world through our publications."

Weeramantry, in both his speech and his book, breaks down the Lord's prayer, relating each word or phrase to some concept of international law and/or human rights. For example, he interprets the word "daily" in "Give us this day our daily bread" as "a clear injunction against anti-social conduct such as hoarding or cornering the market in essential commodities."

In explaining the word "hallowed," Weeramantry says, "When the Prayer says 'hallowed' be thy name, it is saying that the reciter will treat God as hallowed." The word "Our," explained by Weeramantry as a statement of human rights, "places all humans in their proper context of basic equality." Why? Because "all of humanity is placed in the one category of those who together address a common superior" and "Jesus tells his followers that every one of them, however lowly, has a right to address the Almighty directly." Attorney General McMaster's assertion that Weeramantry said this prayer had a purpose independent of religion is ridiculous. He did anything but.

But, the kicker is that Weeramantry's speech, in addition to not supporting McMaster's laughable constitutional argument, actually conflicts with the South Carolina Assembly's historical pretext for displaying the Lord's Prayer, the essential element of which is that James Oglethorpe founded Georgia "in remembrance of 'forgiving our debts as we forgive our debtors'" -- an element that depends wholly upon the specious interpretation of "debts" as financial debts. For Weeramantry, who uses Catholic version of the Lord's Prayer, the word isn't "debts," but "trespasses," interpreted, as it is even by those who do use the word debts, to mean wrongs, or sins, as it is translated in the Luke version of the prayer.

The Ten Commandments, of course, are also to be part of South Carolina's American law displays. In fact, they're first on the list, with the following description.

The Ten Commandments have profoundly influenced the formation of Western legal thought and the formation of our country. That influence is clearly seen in the Declaration of Independence, which declared that 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.' The Ten Commandments provide the moral background of the Declaration of Independence and the foundation of our legal tradition.

If you look at the evolution of this bill, it is abundantly clear that its purpose was to advance religion. The original bill, as introduced in the South Carolina House of Representatives in January 2007, contained nothing more than the following single sentence, to be added to the section in the state's law code on public buildings:

Religious references to God, a deity, or a higher power of any denomination or religion may be used in approved displays, monuments, plaques, or similar fixtures in state or local public areas, buildings, or places.

This single sentence bill was "amended" by the House Judiciary Committee and reported in March 2007. The "amendment" was an entirely different bill -- a bill for displays of the "history and background of American law." Its twelve documents included the Ten Commandments, but the Lord's Prayer was not yet in the list.

(1) The Ten Commandments as extracted from Exodus Chapter 20;

(2) The Magna Carta;

(3) The Mayflower Compact, 1620;

(4) The Declaration of Independence;
(5) The Preamble to the United States Constitution;

(6) The Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution;

(7) 'The Star-Spangled Banner' by Francis Scott Key;

(8) The Pledge of Allegiance;

(9) The Pledge to the South Carolina Flag;

(10) The Preamble to the South Carolina Constitution;

(11) The national motto 'In God We Trust'; and

(12) Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech.

This version of the bill, which included the descriptions and historical significance of the first seven items, also stated that the information included in the displays must "at a minimum include" the descriptions provided in the bill. When the Lord's Prayer was later added, this meant that the historically inaccurate description quoted above must be part of the actual display. At this stage, the bill said that funding could not be used for these "Foundations of American Law and Government" displays.

The bill, in this form, was approved by the House and sent to the Senate, where, in May 2007, it was referred to Senate Judiciary Committee, which made several changes to the list of documents, such as dropping the Pledge to the South Carolina flag and adding the Emancipation Proclamation, but this isn't where the Lord's Prayer was added either.

It was this committee, however, that added the second most outrageous component of the bill. Up until this point, the bill specified a version of the Ten Commandments -- "as extracted from Exodus Chapter 20." For some unfathomable reason, the Senate Judiciary Committee thought that not dictating the version of this religious document would somehow render its display not an advancement of religion. So, they struck out "as extracted from Exodus Chapter 20," and added a clause saying, "Because the purpose of the display is not to advance religion, the General Assembly expresses no preference as to which version of the Ten Commandments is displayed."

The bill finally came to the floor of the South Carolina Senate in May 2008, and over the course of two days, a number of other documents were proposed as additions to the displays, almost all of which were rejected. But, one that did get the thumbs up, by a vote of 30-12, was the Lord's Prayer, along with its contrived significance in the formation of American law. It was also decided that these government promotions of religion and inaccurate American history, under the guise of "Foundations of American Law and Government" displays, could be paid for with state funding.

The bill was signed into law by Gov. Mark Sanford on Jun 11, 2008.

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