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Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Nashville Chapter
PO Box 210005 . Nashville TN 37221

Eschewing Obfuscation

Is Posting the Ten Commandments Moral or Immoral?
written by Charles Sumner

When government decides to post the Ten Commandments in public schools, courts and other public buildings, is it acting in the best interests of its citizens?

First of all, who are the citizens of our nation? They are people of many religious faiths, denominations, sects - and some who are not religious. Yet they are all citizens who should be treated equally by their government. When government attempts to promote a religion, even the religion of the majority, it is bound to be acting against the wishes of some citizens.

Certainly the Ten Commandments express precepts which most people agree with, but four of the ten are specifically religious in nature. Since there is no "standard version" of the Ten Commandments, the selection by government of a particular version shows preference for a particular religion. In this country we have a Bill of Rights whose purpose is to guarantee that the majority cannot deny certain rights to the minority.

America is religiously diverse. The United States is home to nearly 2,000 different religions, traditions, denominations and sects. While many of these groups revere the Ten Commandments, many do not. If government officials put up the Decalogue, will they also post the Five Pillars of Islam, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the Wiccan Rede and the Affirmations of Humanism? Government should never play favorites when it comes to religion.

The Ten Commandments are open to different interpretations. One commandment reads, "Thou shall not kill." Or is that "Thou shall not murder"? The language and meaning depend on what version of the Bible you read, who translated it, and your faith's understanding of it. If it's the former, does that really mean all killing, even in self defense? In war? Executions for crimes? Elsewhere we are admonished to keep holy the Sabbath -- but is that Friday, Saturday or Sunday? Religious leaders differ on these questions. They -- not government bureaucrats -- are best suited to interpret the Commandments for their individual congregants. Where better to post them than in churches and synagogues?

The Constitution forbids government to meddle in matters of religion. Promotion of religious ideals is the job of America's houses of worship. Thus government display of the Ten Commandments violates a fundamental tenet of American life, one that has given us more religious liberty than any people in world history.

The courts have already ruled on the issue in several cases. In the 1980's Stone v. Graham decision, the High Court struck down a Kentucky law that required public schools to post the Ten Commandments. The decision said that the Commandments are "clearly religious in nature" and that their only purpose is to induce readers to "meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey" them, which is an impermissible state objective.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and their allies have won many cases in federal courts which struck down the display of the Decalogue at government buildings. In Cobb County, Georgia, the Eleventh Circuit federal court held that the display in a public building was a violation of the Establishment Clause. In May 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a lower court decision against Elkhart, Indiana.

Court decisions have found display of the Decalogue to be unconstitutional on the lawn of a city municipal building, a county courthouse lawn, statehouse grounds, and several courthouses. Decisions where the display was allowed depended upon how long the displays had been up and whether the intent of posting was to further religion. Often after being challenged, the groups posted other documents so they could say it was an historical display.

Public schools or local governments that post the Ten Commandments are inviting a lawsuit they may well lose. Government officials should not squander taxpayer dollars on futile litigation.

The Religious Right's use of the Ten Commandments borders on blasphemy. They use the Ten Commandments to advance their political agenda. They force action on symbolic resolutions and issues in the hope that politicians who oppose such displays can be defeated in the next election. People who believe the commandments are God's holy word should be appalled at this cynical manipulation of a religious document. I therefore conclude that posting the Ten Commandments by government can easily be said to be immoral.

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