Like many judges following the Supreme Court’s split decision on displays of Ten Commandments monuments in Texas and Kentucky, Robert Freedberg is struggling to determine whether the display in his Pennsylvania courtroom passes constitutional muster.
Yet, at least one fact stands out about the large plaque of the Ten Commandments that hangs directly behind the witness stand in his courtroom: It was a gift from the Jewish community.
For decades, many nonsectarian Jewish organizations and liberal religious ones have joined the fight to keep such displays off public grounds, saying that they represented an unconstitutional violation of church and state. But a half-century ago, a committee of Jews from the Lehigh Valley towns of Easton and Bethlehem presented the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas with the plaque depicting the Jewish version of the Decalogue. The gift was part of a tercentenary celebration commemorating the 300th anniversary of Jewish settlement in America.
Now Freedberg, the court’s president judge, is weighing, along with six other judges, whether to remove the Ten Commandments plaque.
“We’re going to have to consider whether it is primarily to endorse and establish religion,” in which case the plaque will have to be removed, or whether its function is to show a “historical basis for the development of the legal system,” Freedberg told the Forward.
Despite the Supreme Court’s recent rulings, which stated a willingness to be more deferential to older displays that for decades drew no objections, two local rabbis suggested in interviews with the Forward that it might be best to remove the plaque.
The Jewish community would “agree to find another place for [the plaque] in the service of a higher constitutional principle,” said Rabbi Jonathan Gerard of Temple Covenant of Peace, a Reform congregation and the fifth oldest synagogue in the United States.
Rabbi Mark Shrager of Bnei Abraham Synagogue, a Conservative congregation, said that he is not advocating the removal of the plaque. But he also said he thinks that the Ten Commandments “don’t belong in a court of law, displayed like that because of the sensitivities of people of other religions.
“This is a religious document that is part and parcel of the fabric of our society,” Shrager said, “but it still remains a religious document.”
National Jewish organizations have argued that by deciding to use either a Jewish or Christian version of the Ten Commandments, courts are effectively endorsing one religious viewpoint over the other.
But Norman Seidel, a native of Northampton County who was a member of the committee that donated the plaque, told the Forward that the goal “certainly wasn’t encouraging people to become Jews.” Instead, he said, he and his fellow committee members were attempting “to commemorate a historical occasion.” And because “the Ten Commandments are quoted in the Declaration of Independence, it was thought that [the plaque] would be appropriate.”
Seidel rejected claims that the plaque violates the First Amendment. “I think they’re making a problem de minimus,” he said.
Among the oldest in the country, Lehigh Valley’s Jewish community dates back to before the Revolutionary War. According to Seidel, its first member, Meyer Hart, “became the 12th Jewish person to acquire naturalization in Pennsylvania under the Plantation Act of 1740.” Legend has it that General George Washington had his first kosher meal in Easton at the home of Michael Hart, another prominent Jewish settler. A Star of David in a window of the local Presbyterian church serves as another marker of the strong Jewish presence in the county.
Ellis Weitzman, whose father, attorney George Weitzman, chaired the event at which the plaque was initially presented, believes that the display should stay up. “It’s a historical thing,” Weitzman said, “and seeing how the attorneys and judges first put it up in 1955, if they thought it was okay then, why isn’t it okay today?”
According to Peter Pettit, director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College in nearby Allentown, the answer is simple: Symbols, he said, are not static.
“What may have been placed as an innocuous symbol” can easily become a focal point, and the “unique recognition of a religious community” is always problematic. Of course, Pettit said, “this situation is complicated by the fact that nobody would presume that America is a Jewish country.”
By all accounts the plaque is unobtrusive, and in the course of its 50 years on the courthouse wall, no suits have ever been filed and only one defendant has ever complained about its presence. But a suit filed two years ago in nearby Chester County over the constitutionality of a Ten Commandments plaque on display in the courthouse there led Freedberg, the county’s first Jewish judge, to look into the legality of the plaque in his own courthouse. A third circuit ruling in the Chester County case allowed for the plaque to remain in the court, but Freedberg decided to hold off with his decision until after the Supreme Court rulings.
The Supreme Court’s decision to allow a display in Texas but not two more in Kentucky might mean more work for Freedberg when it comes to deciding on what should be permitted in his courtroom. But such a nuanced approach to a delicate issue is probably better for the country, according to Pettit. “We walk a very fine line,” he said, “and it seems to me the Supreme Court rulings addressed that line pretty effectively.”