Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Feb, 23, 2005

"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." Jesus said (in a much earlier interview.)

I love this story. There's this homeless guy, Thomas Van Orden, in Austin, Texas. During the night he sleeps in a tattered tent in the bushes near the State Capitol. During the day he roams the capitol grounds. One day while making his unappointed rounds he came across a 6-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide pink granite monument etched with the Ten Commandments and Christian and Jewish symbols.

Now, Tom – who is 60 -- may be homeless but he is not a heathen. Van Orden considers himself a religious man. He was raised Methodist but in 1990 became a member of the Austin Unitarian church.

I mention all this only to note that Tom harbors no grudge against the Ten Commandments themselves. He just didn’t think it was proper to build a statue to them on public land. So, he contacted the Austin chapter of the ACLU figuring they might not have notice the thing was there and would leap to action. No way Jose.

In an earlier time, before Tom’s life went down the drain, he had been a lawyer. But he lost his license to practice and, in 1990, the state told him before he would be allowed to practice law again he would have to present a certificate attesting that he was sane.

As Tom thought about it he suddenly realized why in over 40 years not one lawyer had ever challenged the Ten Commandment monument. This, he realized, is Texas, after all.

"If you're in private practice in Austin and file this suit, you're going to be radicalized -- even in liberal Austin,” Tom told the Washington Post.

And then it struck Tom; he had plenty of time on his hands and most folks already kept their distance. “Look at me; I'm the perfect person,” Tom said. “I don't have anything to lose. It's like God called me to do it. How could I walk away from that?" he said. "It just looked to me like the light shined on me."

And thusly it came to pass. Tom filed suit representing himself and, after losing twice, his case found its way to the highest court in the land. On March 2, the Supreme Court of the United States of America will hear Van Orden v. Perry, the case spawned by a homeless American’s belief that religion belongs in churches not government. "I wrote myself to the Supreme Court," Tom, who is still homeless, said when he found out the court had accepted his case.

But this time Tom has a lawyer few of us could afford. Constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky of Duke University will argue Van Orden’s case at the Supreme Court.

"I have nothing but the greatest admiration and respect for him," Chemerinsky told the Post. "(Tom) genuinely cares about this issue…I think he did an excellent job of briefing and arguing the case on the trial level and the appellate level. . . . A large Ten Commandments monument sitting between the Texas Capitol and the Texas Supreme Court violates the establishment clause."

Of course rightwing Christians see nothing wrong with ten-ton Judeao-Christian edifices populating public grounds and buildings. I suspect they would feel differently if suddenly ten-ton Buddha’s or various colorful Hindu gods and goddesses starting springing up in front of their local courthouses. But, if they don’t get that point, Tom certainly did.

And he’s tired of the local rednecks accusing him of “suing the Ten Commandments. "I sued the state . . . to uphold the values found in the First Amendment,” Tom snaps.

I love this story, on several levels. First, it is the quintessential “only in America” tale. Where else could a bedraggled 60-year old homeless man get such an issue moving, against strong headwinds, and keep it rolling until it reached the US Supreme Court?

And, he did it, not just without a lawyer, but also without money either! All Tom owned was a passion for the First Amendment and plenty of time. He used the Texas State Law Library for research, panhandled to get small donations to pay for copying and supplies. His U.S. District Court filing fee was waived because he got himself qualified a “pauper.” He used a $4 disposable camera to take the pictures of the monument to submit into evidence. He hitched a ride to New Orleans when it came time to argue his case before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals – where he lost a second time.

But, if the religious right thought that Tom was going to let the matter drop there, they did not know Tom. He still had plenty of time on his hands and his belief that religious monuments have no place on public grounds was undiminished.

But Tom worries that, after beating all the odds and getting his case this far, the power of the religious right to frame issues like this as religious “persecution,” will sway judicial opinion.

"You can still do it with a piece of paper, a pen and a law book," Van Orden said. "But that will be lost in all the hoopla of the Ten Commandments."

I just thought you would like to know about Tom’s fight. Because it’s your fight too. And it has been carried forward, not by the big donors -- and even bigger talkers – in the trail lawyer community – but by a lonely homeless man sleeping in tent in Austin, Texas.

So, yes indeed, God should bless America. And the best way to do that is to protect her from the best intentions of Your followers.

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