Independence day 

Is freedom just another word?

The Fourth of July is here once again, with parades, flag-waving and hordes of politicians lauding our independence, freedom and liberty. But under the boom and crackle of fireworks and the patina of hyper-patriotic speeches, there is a growing and valid concern that our much-flaunted independence is eroding like a sand bank during runoff, that our freedom is being taken away from us by an out-of-control Big Brother government, and that our liberty to live our lives as we please is being squeezed into an ever-narrowing stock chute of acceptable thoughts, words and actions.

Those who fear our loss of independence are not without reason, as a recent series of puzzling and contradictory rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court indicates. Take this week’s decision on the display of the Ten Commandments, for instance. By a narrow 5–4 majority, the court “split the baby” by allowing the display of these undeniably religious icons in government buildings under some conditions, and prohibiting them under others.

Here in Montana, Attorney General Mike McGrath says the court’s decision means the carved granite display of the commandments on Capitol grounds “is not a violation of the Establishment Clause”—the Constitutional provision requiring separation of church and state—because they are merely another monument to the state’s legal and religious history. Comparable statuary on the statehouse grounds include a replica of the Liberty Bell, a granite marker for fallen law enforcement officers, a giant metal buffalo skull, and the statue of Thomas Meagher astride his horse, waving his saber at the sky.

While the court’s ruling provided a handy excuse to avoid further discussion of the intrusion of religion into government, one might want to take a harder look at just what these “historic” monuments say. The statue of Thomas Meagher doesn’t say anything about worshipping him, nor does the Liberty Bell or the tribute to fallen officers. And the buffalo skull, like the massive herds that once thundered across the Great Plains, is silent. Only the Ten Commandments begin with these words: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before thee.”

Chief Justice Rehnquist, the court’s ailing arch-conservative, freely admitted: “Of course, the Ten Commandments are religious—they were so viewed at their inception and so remain. The monument therefore has religious significance.” Given that statement, it is tough to figure out where, exactly, in Montana history or law the commandments might fall. Perhaps Montana’s attorney general will be forthcoming with a more detailed explanation, but don’t hold your breath waiting.

Even more puzzling than when or where obviously religious icons can be displayed on government property were the court’s rulings on states’ rights. In an opinion that shook conservative Sen. Conrad Burns, the court ruled that municipal governments have the right to condemn and bulldoze private property to make way for commercial development. The court’s reasoning was that local governments, being closer to the people, are better suited to make such decisions than the federal government.

But then there was the court’s ruling on medical marijuana wherein, despite the fact that 10 states have already voted to legalize its use, the justices decided that the feds, not the states, know better about what sick people should or shouldn’t be allowed to use. Given that legalizing medical marijuana got more votes in Montana than either President Bush or Gov. Schweitzer, it’s almost impossible to reconcile the court’s logic with the facts on the ground. As for consistency, well, this Supreme Court doesn’t have to worry about going down in history on that account.

What all this has to do with Independence Day isn’t tough to figure out. The nation is facing an imminent decision on the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice when Rehnquist steps down. Already, both “sides” of the debate are gearing up for a fight, with religious radicals squaring off against civil libertarians. It would be a classic “conservative vs. liberal” confrontation except that the federal government’s new predilection for propaganda, secrecy and central control under Bush, coupled with the court’s recent rulings, are giving even hard-core conservatives the willies.

The same Congress that rushed to judgment in approving the liberty- and freedom-destroying USA PATRIOT Act is now having second thoughts about wire-taps that require no judicial oversight, “sneak and peek” excursions into private homes and government monitoring of everything from credit card use to what you’ve been reading in your local public library. No true “conservative” could ever tolerate these kinds of intrusions by government into the private lives of citizens. In fact, most conservatives get elected to office by promising to “keep government off your back.” It’s as tough to reconcile this position with the current state of federal affairs as it is to logically justify the Supreme Court’s antithetical, hypocritical rulings on states’ rights.

Luckily for us, Montana’s Constitution contains many provisions that protect us from the direction in which the federal government is headed. Open government is guaranteed through a Right to Know clause, while the Right of Privacy and Search and Seizure clauses protect us from unwarranted government intrusion. Our Freedom of Speech, Expression, and Press clause guarantees that “Every person shall be free to speak or publish whatever he will on any subject.” And remember, just a few months ago, Montana’s Legislature passed a resolution requesting the repeal of certain onerous sections of the PATRIOT Act, and our voters overwhelmingly approved the use of medical marijuana.

Now, on this Independence Day, when our freedom and liberty are most being threatened by federal actions, would be a good time for Montanans to remind our congressional delegation of those facts, and make sure they represent us in the crucial decisions ahead. Flag-waving and patriotic speeches are just fine. But let’s make sure Max Baucus, Conrad Burns and Denny Rehberg listen up, put politics aside and take actions that truly preserve Montanans’ freedom, liberty and independence.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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