Posting the Ten Commandments on Public Buildings

Introduction

In seeking to have the Ten Commandments posted on public buildings, a national group says the Commandments “transcend religious differences” and are considered by people of all faiths as sound principles.

Other groups support the postings by saying the U.S. legal system is based on the Ten Commandments.

Even a superficial look at the Commandments, however, shows that such persons are wildly incorrect.

Commandments don’t transcend religious differences

According to most Protestant denominations, the first four Commandments require people to: have no other gods before the Old Testament’s God, make no graven images, not take the Lord’s name in vain, and keep the Sabbath holy.

These teachings are not ethical precepts held in common by all religions and philosophies.

Rather, the first four Commandments involve strictly religious duties that are inconsistent with the beliefs of numerous persons in the nearly 2,000 different religions, traditions, denominations, and sects in the U.S.

Many of those groups don’t worship the Old Testament’s God. They also disapprove of some or all of the other religious teachings in the Ten Commandments. And, of course, millions worship no god.

U.S. Legal System not based on the Commandments

The religious nature of the Ten Commandments also belies the claim that they are the foundation of the U.S. legal system.

The constitutional principle of church-state separation excludes such sectarian Commandments from having any part in the legal system – let alone being the foundation of it.

That position is further supported in a brief filed at the U.S. Supreme Court by several legal historians and law scholars in a 2005 case. The brief, coordinated by Professor Steven K. Green of Willamette University College of Law, notes the Constitution and Bill of Rights “did not include even a perfunctory or formalistic reference to God.”

The brief continues: “Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Ten Commandments and biblical law received nary a mention in the debates and publications surrounding the founding documents. In the wide-ranging debates . . . the Founders mentioned Roman law, European Continental law, British law, and various other legal systems, but as can best be determined, no delegate ever mentioned the Ten Commandments or the Bible.”

No wonder the Treaty of Tripoli, which was approved by President John Adams and unanimously ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1797, declared that “the government of the United States of America is not founded in any sense on the Christian religion. . . .”

Governmental displays of the Commandments unfair to minority religions

Because of the religious views contained in the Ten Commandments, displaying the Decalogue on public buildings would send a message of official disapproval to religions that reject those views.

Government would effectively be labeling minority religions as having false, inferior, and even unpatriotic religious beliefs. As a result, their adherents would be viewed as second-class citizens.

Besides being highly offensive, that treatment is a prescription for intolerance and persecution. Throughout history, refusing to support a state-established religion was often considered not only irreverent but treasonous.

This was because opposing the government’s religion was the same as opposing the government. Punishment was meted out accordingly by either the government or private persons.

Religious people disagree about the Commandments

Even among religious organizations accepting the Ten Commandments, there’s no standard version they can all agree on. Various religions and denominations disagree on the order in which the Commandments should be listed. They also use different Commandments, wording, and translations.

For example, Judaism traditionally has a different First Commandment than is accepted by Protestants and Catholics. The First Commandment listed by Jews is normally, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

But Protestants and Catholics generally regard that statement as a prologue instead of a separate Commandment. In fact, it’s entirely missing from most Christian formats of the Ten Commandments.

Additionally, Protestants and Catholics disagree over the Second Commandment. Protestants say it bans graven images, but Catholics leave out the ban altogether.

In place of a Commandment banning graven images, Catholics claim that the Protestants’ Tenth Commandment, which prohibits “coveting” various things, should be divided into two separate Commandments.

Moreover, because one of the things the Tenth Commandment prohibits people from coveting is their neighbor’s “ass,” some puritanical Christians might argue that this Commandment should not be displayed in a public place, where children might see it.

There’s also controversy among religious groups on whether Friday, Saturday, or Sunday is the Sabbath that must be kept holy.

And disputes exist about whether the ban on killing refers to all killing, to certain types of killing, or only to murder.

Further, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz points out: “Even today, almost nobody proposes that the full ‘Ten Commandments’ actually be posted in schools or courthouses. What they want posted are the ‘Ten Bumper Stickers’ or ‘Cliff’s Notes’ – abbreviated renditions of the actual commandments, since the full text contains reference to slavery, intergenerational punishment, and conflicting reasons for observing a day of rest on Saturday, not Sunday.”

Clearly, by declaring a particular version of the Ten Commandments to be the “official” one, government would insult not only members of minority religions but also many Christians who don’t accept the government’s version.

Founders wanted governmental neutrality toward religion

Such divisiveness has the potential to cause horrendous evil. It’s a reason the Founding Fathers provided in the Constitution that government shall be neutral concerning religion.

They knew that throughout history, governmental involvement in religion had caused millions to be killed in conflicts over whose religious beliefs should be supported or opposed by the government.

In fact, much persecution occurred in Europe precisely over the meaning of the ban on worshipping a “graven image.”

Besides disputes over which version of the Ten Commandments should be promoted by government, the religious diversity of today’s America could result in conflicts over whose sacred texts should have the same privilege.

It’s entirely possible that some persons would argue for display of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the Five Pillars of Islam, the Wiccan Rede, or the Affirmations of Humanism. Others would surely argue to the contrary.

Keeping religion and government separate, as the Founders intended, prevents these conflicts.

Conclusion 

The people making the most sense on this issue are those who apply the Golden Rule taught by many religions and philosophies. Unlike the Ten Commandments, it truly does “transcend religious differences.”

Those persons know they would be offended if government promoted religious beliefs they disagree with. So they don’t want the government promoting their religious views, because they realize others would be similarly offended.

It’s curious that more religious people don’t adopt this position, since the Golden Rule is supposedly one of the most important tenets of many religions.

It’s even more curious in view of the fact that church-state separation is one of the most important tenets on which the U.S. was founded.

Any position required by both the Golden Rule and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution deserves the strongest support.