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Edward Coke
Edward Coke

A history lesson in a lawsuit

For better or for worse, “courtroom interior design” is an oxymoron. Most courtrooms’ decor consists of flags and county or state seals, with the occasional portrait of a judge hanging on the wall.

In other words, nothing too controversial. Except, apparently, in Rhode Island, where a Latin inscription in the Rhode Island Supreme Court is now subject of a federal lawsuit.

A recently suspended lawyer there alleges the phrase, which translates to “Not under man, but under God and law,” violates the First Amendment and endorses a “particular religious viewpoint” that he does not endorse.

Legal observers point out the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld “ceremonial deism,” which the phrase probably is. But the lawsuit also take issue with how the quote is described in an informational packet about the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

The phrase is attributed to Sir Edward Coke, a British lawyer and politician and mentor to Roger Williams, Rhode Island’s founder. From the lawsuit:

Though the publication portrays Lord Coke as a defender of freedom and equality defying a tyrannical king, Coke had actually been a persecutor of religious and political dissidents in England who had supported the ecclesiastical court of the High Commission and its counterpart the Star Chamber.

While Coke had mentored Roger Williams as a youth, Roger Williams later denounced Coke’s views regarding religious persecution, the separation of church and state, and the Church of England, which eventually led to his own religious persecution and the founding of Rhode Island.

As Howard Friedman at Religion Clause writes, “the full complaint makes fascinating reading for fans of English legal history.”

Enjoy reading it while watching the snow melt this weekend.

(HT: How Appealing)