Montana’s Constitution, Article II, Section 4, sets out a powerful fundamental right: “Individual dignity. The dignity of the human being is inviolable.” Our Supreme Court used this right, in conjunction with the fundamental right to be protected against the infliction of cruel and unusual punishments, Article II, Section 22, in a 2003 case: Walker v. State.

In that case, among other things, the court determined that Montana State Prison practices regarding behavioral management plans (BMP) violated these two constitutional rights. These BMP plans included incarcerating disruptive/mentally ill inmates in filthy cells with no or inadequate clothing, leaving the lights on 12-16 hours a day, and forcing the inmate to sleep on a concrete slab with no mattress and little or no blanket, among other gross and inhuman treatments.

Since I wrote the Walker opinion, I was appalled to read a Huffington Post report on a recent oral argument at the Ninth Circuit. In that argument, a federal Department of Justice attorney argued, on behalf of the present administration, that detained migrant children were being housed in “safe and sanitary conditions” despite these children being forced to sleep on cold concrete floors with nothing more than an aluminum foil blanket, with the lights left on all night long, and despite not being provided with soap and toothbrushes. Apparently the Ninth Circuit judges were stunned by these arguments.

Indeed, if the Montana Department of Family Services found a parent treating a child in this manner, the child would most likely be removed from the parent’s custody and the parent would be referred to the county attorney for criminal prosecution.

More to the point, however, every American should be appalled and stunned by an administration that refuses to recognize the dignity of human beings, regardless of their status.

Caging immigrants like animals; separating children from their parents; holding children in conditions that cause, according to the Ninth Circuit arguments, about one child death each month is a blatant abuse of the human dignity of these individuals.

These atrocities are all the more astounding, being perpetrated in a “Christian” nation by politicians and public officials who never miss an opportunity to trumpet their own religiosity. “Suffer the little children to come unto me” has become, under this administration, “let the little children suffer.” No doubt Jesus is as gob-smacked as the Ninth Circuit judges.

Though, as disgusting as it is, caging migrant children and condemning them to sleep on cold concrete floors with a foil blanket under naked lights and refusing them toothbrushes and soap is part of this administration’s final solution to seal our borders against immigrants and asylum seekers. I hate to think what is next.

But, if we have learned anything from our nation’s experience in World War II, it is that government leaders who devalue the dignity of human beings; who demonize and bully the powerless; who treat those least able to defend themselves as animals; and who imprison people in unsafe and unsanitary conditions — it is that those leaders do not represent the values of democracy. Rather, they are authoritarians; they are fascists.

Little children in cages, sleeping on concrete, proves the point.

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James C. Nelson is a retired Montana Supreme Court justice.

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