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Public Displays of the Ten Commandments

by Paul Rasor, Center Director

The Supreme Court's recent decisions involving public displays of the Ten Commandments raise some important issues about religious freedom and church-state relations. The Court was faced with two different public displays, and came to two different conclusions. In Texas, a monument with the text of the Ten Commandments was situated among 17 monuments and 21 historical markers in a public park next to the state Capitol. It had been there 40 years. The Court said that in this context, the monument had a basically secular purpose, illustrating the history of the state's legal system. As a result, its placement on public property did not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The other case arose in Kentucky. Framed copies of the Protestant King James translation of Ten Commandments were posted in two county courthouses. After some local residents sued, the counties added some other legal and historical documents. They also passed resolutions saying the display was intended to demonstrate America's Christian heritage. But the Supreme Court didn't buy this after-the-fact justification. It found that these displays had a clearly religious purpose, and so violated the First Amendment. In both cases, the Court relied on the so-called neutrality principle. This means that the government cannot favor one religion over another, nor can it favor religion over non-religion. Ironically, the result seems to be that the government can display a religious message if the purpose of doing so is not religious.

To me, these sorts of government-sanctioned religious displays involve not just bad law, but bad theology.  More often than not, it seems clear that those who advocate them are indeed trying to promote a particular religious viewpoint. But, given the requirements of the First Amendment, they can't say this. The problem is that by trying to disguise a religious message as having a secular purpose, they risk undermining the very message they want to promote.

We see a similar problem in other contexts. A crèche, for example, is a symbolic representation of the birth of Jesus. It has deep religious meaning for many Christians. In order to pass constitutional muster for display on public grounds, however, its meaning must be watered down so that its purpose can be said to be secular. But why would those for whom a crèche has deep religious significance want this?

By the same token, some who favor prayer in public schools try to get around the legal limitations by suggesting that religious leaders could offer generic prayers that contain nothing that could be identified with a particular faith. The Supreme Court hasn't allowed this, but there are still important theological issues here. Why would any religious leader want to offer a content-less, lowest-common-denominator prayer? For many people, it is the particular content of their faith traditions -- the very things on which they differ -- that give them meaning. This is why interfaith dialogue is so important. Generic prayers, like watered down crèches or "secularized" displays of the Ten Commandments, not only offend non-believers; they also offend many who take their faiths seriously.

Another theological problem has more to do with authority than with content. If religious freedom means anything, it means that religious groups and individuals may determine for themselves the basic moral commitments and doctrinal tenets of their faith. But when they ask the government to sanction a religious message, they are in effect giving up their own authority to determine that message.  What is to prevent government officials from deciding to put up a different text? How would those behind the postings in Kentucky, for example, react if a city council in Dearborn, Michigan, where Muslim-Americans represent a significant part of the population, posted some verses from the Qur'an? By the same token, are those who favor prayer in public schools willing to schedule time for Salat, the daily prayer practice required of all devout Muslims?

It is not an answer to say that the United States has its roots in the Jewish-Christian tradition, or that the Founders were Christian, or even that moral principles derived from this religious heritage form a central part of the basis for our legal system. These statements are of course correct. But religious freedom suffers when the state promotes a particular religious viewpoint under the guise of honoring this history. Theologically, when a religious group asks the state to endorse its message, it comes dangerously close to idolatry -- a violation not only of the First Amendment, but also of the First Commandment. Politically, when a majority religion persuades the state to endorse its views, we have taken a dangerous step toward theocracy.

This is not to say that religious groups and religiously motivated individuals should not be involved in the important public issues of our time. They should be. This sort of "witness" is an important part of many faith traditions, as is the prophetic tradition of calling those in power to account for injustice and abuse. But people of faith do this more effectively, and more faithfully, when they don't ask the government to help.

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