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The Court's Attack on Language

You might have missed this story. On June 22 the 12th District Court of Appeals in Ohio overturned a parking ticket. Andrea Cammelleri had been cited for parking her truck on a city street. She fought the citation, saying the ordinance only prohibited parking a “motor vehicle camper” on the street, not a simple motor vehicle. The trial court ruled against her, writing that “anybody reading [the ordinance] would understand that it is just missing a comma.”


Well, Judge Robert A. Hendrickson disagreed. He explained that the rule of law demands using the “rules of grammar and employing the common sense meaning of terms.” He wrote, “If the village desires a different reading, it should amend the ordinance and insert a comma between the phrase “motor vehicle” and the word “camper.”


Now what does a simple parking violation have to do with the larger culture? My colleague Daniel Weiss teases this out in his recent article on BreakPoint.org. The parking ticket story might not mean so much, he writes, if not for the two misguided Supreme Court decisions handed down just days later.


Now I’ve already shared quite a bit about these decisions, but I think Weiss’ point is worth exploring. In their own ways, both Supreme Court decisions dealt severe blows to the common meaning of words. Beyond the immediate impact of the rulings, their attack on the function of language might be the most significant long-term threat.


In Burwell vs. King, the Court found that the clear, plain language of the law commonly known as Obamacare wasn’t adequate to make the law work. So rather than asking Congress to rework the law, as would be proper, the Court gave it new meaning based on nothing more than the justices’ own desire to see the law stand.


Ironic, since the world just honored the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which established the idea of Lex Rex, that the law is king. It was an important check on the abuse of great power. That idea seems to be lost on this particular Court. If the federal government doesn’t have to abide by its own laws, why should average citizens?


In their other ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court violated thousands of years of human history that understood marriage to be the conjugal union of a man and woman for the purpose of family, and it found in the Constitution something that was not there. Even after tens of millions had affirmed their support for marriage at the ballot box, five justices redefined our foundational social institution and silenced an essential public debate.


The absurdity of these rulings is mindboggling until you understand the ideas driving them. Weiss unearthed a clue from the self-absorbed ramblings of Alice in Wonderland’s Humpty Dumpty, who said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”


For Humpty, co-opting the meaning of words makes perfect sense, because his goal is not to communicate Truth, but to become the master. The recent court rulings—and many cultural disruptions over the past decades—are really about who will be master.


As Weiss indicates, there’s a long history detailing the manipulation of language for the purpose of social control. George Orwell described the process well in his book 1984. The language was forever being altered, “to make all other modes of thought impossible. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings….”


But this isn’t something only of science fiction. When Communists took over mainland China, they perpetrated a “Cultural Revolution” that disrupted family bonds, discouraged religious devotion, and dismantled the Chinese language. Simplified characters replaced five thousand years of meaning and culture.


Now, we have it here. Words like “husband” and “wife” are discriminatory, confining marriage to two people is hateful, and “religious freedom” is bigotry. And many in our society wish to make words mean just what they want them to mean. But we have something they don’t: the Truth. And our loyalties remain: to the Christ who Himself is that Truth.



BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.

John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.


Publication date: August 24, 2015

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