Lord Hanuman and the Ten Commandments on State Grounds - What's a State to Do?

09/01/2015 05:35 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2016

I would rather not see my beloved Lord Hanuman displayed on Arkansas or any other state capital grounds. I'd rather not see the Ten Commandments there either.

From a practical point of view, why would any person of faith want to place their most sacred icons in places that may not garner the same respect they would on private church or temple property and amongst adherents of that particular faith? The likelihood of it being desecrated would be far greater on public property, I would think. A protest, a parade -- and before you know it, your icon just got TP'd or worse yet, urinated on.

More importantly, why put the government in the business of picking and choosing between religions? But nearly a decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court did precisely that and opened up one more space for religion to divide rather than unite Americans. By opting for a case-by-case approach rather than a bright-line test for religious displays, and later inserting a free speech scapegoat into the mix, the Court has helped pave the way for the government to favor Judeo-Christian faiths over all others.

First, a primer on Lord Hanuman, as the coverage of the State of Arkansas rejecting an application to erect a statue of Hanuman on the coat-tails of approving a display of the 10Cs has conjured up the usual misunderstandings about Hinduism. Lord Hanuman is the Perfect Hero and adored by millions of Hindus. He is a central figure of the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, a perennial tale which offers life-lessons in Dharma (right living). He epitomizes devotion, humility, unconditional love, dutifulness, strength, bravery, and intelligence. Hanuman, because of his many virtues, is worshipped by people of all walks of life -- from athletes to poets and from 90 year-old grandmothers to 5 year-old students.

When I read that the application for a display of a Hanuman statue was rejected by Arkansas' Secretary of State, it reminded me of the Hindu American Foundation's (HAF) entree into church-state advocacy almost a decade ago. With barely two years under our belt, HAF got connected with civil liberties champions like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and with their encouragement, filed a brief as amicus curiae in Van Orden v. Perry. Van Orden dealt with the question of whether a Decalogue monument on Texas capital state grounds violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Our brief sought to provide non-Judeo Christian perspectives on the issue and presented arguments that the public display showed an unconstitutional government preference for Judeo-Christian theology, and thus, violated the separation of church and state. It also explained how the religious precepts contained in the Decalogue digress significantly from non-Judeo-Christian concepts regarding the nature of God and the relationship between man and God. And as such, the brief argued, any public display of the Ten Commandments on government property imply the political and social exclusion of non-Judeo-Christian religions, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains.

The Supreme Court issued a concurrent ruling. For a second religious display case, McCreary County v. ACLU, it ruled that framed copies of the 10Cs in two Kentucky courthouses were unconstitutional as they had the express purpose of promoting the Judeo-Christian faith. On the other hand, in Van Orden, the Court ruled that the monument, basically a 6x10 sculpture, did not violate the Constitution because in that context, the 10Cs conveyed a historic and social meaning, rather than a religious endorsement. In spite of the outcome, weighing in on the national debate for the very first time was a historic moment for the Hindu American community and so too for fellow Dharmic traditions, Buddhism and Jainism.

Today, however, the cautionary wisdom offered by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in McCreary needs to be heeded. She said, "Allowing government to be a potential mouthpiece for competing religious ideas risks the sort of division that might easily spill over into suppression of rival beliefs. Tying secular and religious authority together poses risks to both." And that is exactly what is happening.

Just earlier this summer, the Oklahoma Supreme Court said that a 10Cs monument that was "privately sponsored" by a state representative to display on state grounds had to go. The Governor has said it isn't going anywhere. Meanwhile, in response to the decision to put the commandments up in the first place, the Church of Satan asked that a display of Baphomet be erected as well. That application was placed on hold until Oklahoma's high court decided the fate of the public Decalogue. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

In Utah, the Church of Summum requested that a display of their Seven Aphorisms, which comment on the nature of Reality, be placed in a public park which also featured a Commandments display. The U.S. Supreme Court conveniently ruled that the government accepting a privately-funded monument, in that case a Decalogue, and rejecting another privately funded monument, ie. the Seven Aphorisms, was an exercise of government speech, as opposed to the government essentially picking one set of beliefs over another.

And now in Arkansas, the Governor signed into law a bill which instructs the Secretary of State to erect a privately funded Ten Commandments monument on the state capital grounds. In the same breath, the Secretary of State has rejected an application for a statue of the Hindu deity, Hanuman, though on what appears to be a technicality. An application for a public display of Baphomet also seems to be forthcoming. What's a state to do?

Just as the non-religious aspects of the Decalogue have been eked out in order to justify its presence on state property, I too can argue until the cows come home about all the "non-religious" symbolic value of Hanuman or perhaps, in defense of a more similar display to the Commandments -- one of the Bhagavad Gita. A public display of some of its quotes etched in stone, I would hold, symbolizes the Gita's historical impact on Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century American Transcendentalist Movement, and perhaps the greatest generation of American literature, intellectualism, and philosophy -- a movement that gave birth to intellectual giants like Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, William Henry Furness, and Walt Whitman. But with the way things have gone for non-Judeo Christian displays, why bother? It seems the government and even our highest Court have wriggled around Constitutional guarantees in order to pick sides. Is that what our Founding Fathers, as influenced as they may have been by the 10Cs, intended when they prophetically drafted the First Amendment as a foundation for our secular democracy? I'm fairly confident most freedom-loving Americans would say no.