Three snow days and a two-hour delay did not deter the students at Langley High School from presenting their 10th annual Case Day, during which students and community leaders took two Supreme Court cases and argued them in front of the school to better understand the role of the Supreme Court in everyday life.
The two cases in question this year were Van Orden v. Perry, Case 03-1500, and McCreary v. ACLU, Case 03-1693, questioning the constitutionality of the presence of the Ten Commandments in or around government buildings. The cases were particularly timely, as the Supreme Court began hearing these cases this week.
In addition to the two major cases, students debated other controversial topics, either alone or in groups of two, offering their stances on government funding of stem cell research, renewing the Patriot Act, and the amount of control an individual should have over his or her own body.
“After conception, cells form a blastocyst, a ball of unspecialized cells, that can create over 200 kinds of cells needed by the body,” said Philip Wilcox, a senior debating on behalf of stem cell research being funded by the government.
“Many scientists believe that using stem cells could control and treat various kinds of diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, glaucoma, and could possibly be used to regenerate organs for those in need of transplants,” he said in his opening argument. “Over 100 million Americans who suffer from those diseases could be helped through stem cell research.” “Do we stand for the lives of embryos that would otherwise be destroyed, that are currently sitting in freezers from in-vitro fertilization processes and were not needed, or do we stand for the lives of those who suffer from diseases?” he asked, citing the argument that 400,000 embryos that will most likely eventually be destroyed could be used for research. “We could study diseases and how they grow by injecting the stem cells with the disease and watching the progression.”
Those who would argue that embryos would be killed in the name of science, he said, should recognize that “no doctor would counsel a couple to get an abortion for the sake of science.”
TUAN HO, arguing against government funding, made an equally passionate plea for the embryos, stating that life begins at conception and that the use of embryos is still considered murder.
“Many scientists believe undefined cells can be manipulated to form other cells, including cells found in adult bone marrow,” he said. “The issue is where the cells come from. Many scientists would say it is legitimate to be killing embryos for the purpose of scientific research, but that would make it acceptable to risk human life in the sake of research,” he said.
The long-term benefits of allowing stem cell research are unknown, Ho said, which makes the question of further testing a gamble.
“We cannot suspend the moral and ethical values of this nation for a possible future outcome,” he said. “It’s no wonder the embryos used for research are in the hands of private corporations who put profits before human life.”
BOTH ARGUED about the definition of consciousness, which Wilcox said embryos cannot show signs of and therefore renders them non-human, and Ho argued that “if we made the decision of what constitutes life based on a rule of self awareness, coma patients would be classified as non-human.”
In the second debate, Elysha Chang and Liz Emery argued that people should have total control over their own bodies, while Becky Henry and Velginy Hernandez argued that government restriction and regulation reinforce morality and are needed by society.
“John Locke highly influenced the Founding Fathers in the writing of the Constitution, and he wrote that every human being has natural rights that the government cannot infringe upon,” Chang said.
In the case of abortion, the choice should ultimately reside within each individual woman, she said. “Pro choice is not pro abortion. Pro choice supports the right of each woman to choose,” she said. “Freedom should be the right of each woman.”
“Legalizing abortion does not enforce anything,” she said.
In fact, keeping abortions legal maintains the safety of the women who do chose to have the operation, Emery said. “Before abortions were legal, over five thousand women a year died as the result of an unsafe abortion,” she said.
In the case of a woman who becomes pregnant after a rape, forcing a woman to carry and give birth to a child would only reinforce the trauma that woman suffered, Emery said.
RIGHTS AND obligations to society need to be taken into consideration, Hernandez said.
“We are born with arms which can be used to drive a car, but we cannot drive as fast as we want to. There are speed limits and parking restrictions which are in place to make the road safer,” she said.
Over 90 percent of abortions are done for elective reason, meaning the mother’s life is not in any danger, she said. “The right to life is of divine origin, and no government can deny an unalienable right.”
To have an abortion is to “deter the consequences of a person’s actions,” Hernandez said.
Venturing into the topic of prostitution, legalizing prostitution would allow for the safety and health of the prostitutes and their patrons, Emery said, and “it should not be up to the government to determine what two consenting adults do in private.”
Opponents of prostitution are in no way directly affected by its legalization, she argued. “Because it is illegal, there are no regulations on things like the prostitution of minors. If it were legalized, there could be designated areas where it is legal, where drug use would not be allowed, to prevent these women from being abused by their clients,” she said.
“Public health concerns show that prostitution should be illegal,” Henry said. “A lot of paid sexual activity takes place in alleyways and the back seats of cars, and used sexual paraphernalia can be dangerous to those who live in the area where these acts take place,” she said. Citing the common occurrences of prostitution occurring in areas of high drug use, she said, “Prostitution can bring in the drug trade, which makes neighborhoods dangerous for children.”
RETURNING TO the focus of the day, a panel of religious leaders discussed the constitutionality of having the Ten Commandments on display in public offices and government buildings.
Throughout the day, a stone monument bearing the Ten Commandments was on display, on the back of a flatbed truck, which made the journey from Alabama. The monument was actually one put in place by Judge Ashley McKathan, a circuit court justice from Covington, Ala., who was removed from the bench after he had the Commandments woven into his judicial robes. Judge McKathan was also at Case Day and gave a brief presentation on why he chose to make such a bold move, which he justified by saying the Commandments “can help a judge know the difference between right and wrong.”
Serving on the panel were Rick Wingrove, president of the Virginia chapter of American Atheists; Baptist pastors Jason Lamb and Denis Richards; and student Alison Weckstein, a Jewish student at Langley.
Most of the discussion centered on whether the Commandments were of any influence to the Founding Fathers when writing the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
“I don’t believe the location of the Ten Commandments leads toward anything,” Richards said. “To say that the government shouldn’t support religion or non-religion through the placement or removal of the Commandments is supportive of non-religion.”
“So many students, even in this school, don’t believe in what the Commandments say,” Lamb said. “Their presence, on federal property or in a school, does not require you to believe in what they say.”
“There are different versions of the Commandments with different wordings,” Weckstein said. “One version makes a reference to worshiping graven images, which may offend Catholics. One version has it written, ‘Thou Shall Not Kill,’ while another states ‘Thou Shall Not Murder,’ which changes the meaning.”
The principle of having the Commandments on display clearly promotes religion, Wingrove said. “Religion is the most divisive topic in history,” he said. “Disagreements over religion have caused more death and wars than almost anything else.”
When those responsible for framing the early government of the United States were starting to write the governing documents, “They made the Constitution specifically secular to avoid those problems. They made a point to include it early in the Constitution to separate church and state.”
Almost half of the Commandments deal exclusively with religion, and the others are purely humanist ideas, he said.
“You cannot find evidence of any document being more influential to the writing of the Constitution than the Bible,” Richards countered. “The separation of church and state was a court decision and not necessarily a correct decision.”
Weckstein said there should be a separation between the two, and the presence of the Commandments shows a definite preference toward religious teachings.
“The Founding Fathers were very clear in giving the right to the freedom of religion or freedom from it,” Lamb said. “Some chose not to believe in anything at all. It’s a matter of choice.”
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Wingrove said, were humanists and not religious at all. “Humanist principles make up Commandments five through 10.”
“’Thou shall kill’ is also a humanist principle. To kill a person and to take a life is of no consequence to humanists,” Richards said, prompting an audible response from those gathered in the library to hear the discussion.
“I’m aghast that a spokesperson for the church said a humanist principle is murder,” Wingrove said. “A great deal of the Bible deals with death. The first Commandment that is not punishable by death, according to the bible, is lying.”