Ten Commandments Rulings - United States Debate Over Display On Public Property

United States Debate Over Display On Public Property

See also: Roy Moore, Van Orden v. Perry, and Separation of church and state in the United States

There have been recurring disputes in the United States concerning the posting of the ten commandments on public property. Certain conservative religious groups have taken the banning of officially sanctioned prayer from public schools by the U.S. Supreme Court as a threat to the expression of religion in public life. In response, they have successfully lobbied many state and local governments to display the ten commandments in public buildings. Displaying the commandments can reflect a sectarian position if they are numbered. Protestants and Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Jews number the commandments differently. However, this problem can be circumvented by omitting the numbers, as was done at the Texas capitol (shown here). Hundreds of these monuments—including some of those causing dispute—were originally placed by director Cecil B. DeMille as a publicity stunt to promote his 1956 film The Ten Commandments.

Others oppose the posting of the ten commandments on public property, arguing that it violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

In contrast, groups supporting the public display of the ten commandments claim that the commandments are not necessarily religious but represent the moral and legal foundation of society, and are appropriate to be displayed as a historical source of present day legal codes. Also, some argue that prohibiting the public practice of religion is a violation of the first amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion.

U.S. legislators counter that the ten commandments are derived from Judeo-Christian religions. The statement "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" excludes Hinduism and Zoroastrianism for example, which are not Judeo-Christian, monotheistic religions. Whether the Constitution prohibits the posting of the commandments or not, there are additional political and civil rights issues regarding the posting of what is construed as religious doctrine. Excluding religions that have not accepted the ten commandments creates the appearance of impropriety. The perception that a US state church has been established is viewed as repugnant, the impression being that the intent of the establishment clause regarding freedom of religion is undermined.

In addition, it has been argued if the commandments are posted, it would require that members of other religions be allowed to post the particular tenets of their religions as well. For example, an organization called Summum has won court cases against municipalities in Utah for refusing to allow the group to erect a monument of Summum aphorisms next to the ten commandments. The cases were won on the grounds that Summum's right to freedom of speech was denied and the governments had engaged in discrimination. Instead of allowing Summum to erect its monument, the local governments chose to remove their ten commandments.

Some religious Jews oppose the posting of the ten commandments in public schools, as they feel it is wrong for public schools to teach their children Judaism. The argument is that if a Jewish parent wishes to teach their child to be a Jew, then this education should come only from practicing Jews. This position is based on the demographic fact that the vast majority of public school teachers in the United States are not Jews; the same is true for the students. This same reasoning and position is also held by many believers in other religions. Many Christians have some concerns about this as well; for example, can Catholic parents count on Protestant or Orthodox Christian teachers to tell their children their particular understanding of the commandments? Differences in the interpretation and translation of these commandments, as noted above, can sometimes be significant.

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have launched lawsuits challenging the posting of the ten commandments in public buildings. Opponents of these displays include a number of religious groups, including some Christian denominations, both because they don't want government to be issuing religious doctrine, and because they feel strongly that the commandments are inherently religious. Many commentators see this issue as part of a wider culture war between liberal and conservative elements in American society. In response to the perceived attacks on traditional society, other legal organizations, such as the Liberty Counsel, have risen to advocate the conservative interpretation.

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