An anonymous wit once said America was a land with 40 million laws to enforce the Ten Commandments. And it looks like at least one more law, or rather, legal ruling, is needed to determine whether those Commandments can be displayed in a government building.
On March 2, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in two cases involving the Ten Commandments. In Texas, a lower court has ruled that it is permissible to keep a monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state capitol in Austin. However, a lower court in Kentucky ruled against a display of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky counties’ buildings.
Attorney David Friedman, arguing for the American Civil Liberties Union in its case, McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, pointed to resolutions passed by the two counties’ governing bodies that said Ten Commandments displays in the courthouses were justified because “Jesus is the prince of ethics” and voicing support for former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who was forced from his job after he refused to remove a Ten Commandments monument he had placed prominently in his courthouse. The counties’ supervisors “absolutely intended and felt they had a right to display the Ten Commandments because of the religious nature of the displays,” Friedman said.
Attorney Mat Staver, arguing for the Kentucky counties, urged the justices to look beyond the overtly Christian intentions of the county supervisors who commissioned the original displays, in which just the Ten Commandments were posted in 1999. Instead he said the court should focus on the third version of the displays, created after lower courts rejected earlier versions as too overtly Christian to the exclusion of other belief systems. The third version of the display included equal-sized versions of other historic documents in addition to the Ten Commandments. Staver said the resolutions no longer reflect the counties’ intentions and probably were only still on the books because of an oversight.
“They will repeal and repudiate them,” he said.
In the Texas case, attorney Erwin Chemerinsky argued that because the Ten Commandments display is the only religiously themed piece among 17 monuments on the grounds of the state capitol, it unconstitutionally elevates specific Judeo-Christian beliefs above other religions. In the Texas case, Van Orden v. Perry, a man who frequently walks on the capitol grounds sued because he said the Ten Commandments monument made him feel that the state was forcing a Christian religious message on him.
The debate over display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings has divided the nation’s courts for years. According to the ACLU, cases involving public display have been argued in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and other states.
The debate came to Nazareth College in Pittsford on the evening of March 1. In a public forum, Mark D. Hosken, assistant federal public defender for Western New York, and Dr. Scott B. Caton, a professor of history at Roberts Weslyan College, discussed the pros and cons of displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings.
The discussion was the inaugural presentation of Nazareth’s Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, which will present both spiritual and practical discussions of interfaith issues, according to organizers. Information on the center is available at www.naz.edu/dept/cisd/.
The crux of any case involving church and state is whether a state action involves government endorsement or disapproval of religion, according to Hosken. Opponents of displaying the Ten Commandments believe doing so puts the government stamp of approval on such religions as Judaism or Christianity, he noted, not to mention belief in God. Opponents also note that differing versions of the Ten Commandments, including conflicting Catholic and Protestant ones, exist. Picking one version for display can be seen as an endorsement of a specific religion, he said.
Proponents, on the other hand, believe the Ten Commandments are one of the sources of American law and deserve to be so noted publicly, Hosken said. And generally speaking, the monuments in question have been donated by private organizations using their own funds.
Both Hosken and Caton pointed out that the issue is not clear-cut. For example, Hosken said that the government practices “ceremonial deism” by such activities as placing the national motto “In God We Trust” on money. To understand why some people oppose such activities, he asked the audience to ponder how it would feel if the motto read “In Allah We Trust.”
Hosken added that some Americans worship multiple deities and could be offended by the monotheism found in the Ten Commandments. Opponents of the public display of the Ten Commandments believe it could lead to certain Americans feeling marginalized when they see such displays in a government building, he noted. He summed up the opponents’ argument by joking: “You cannot hang Ten.”
On the other hand, religion is part and parcel of American history, according to Caton, who noted that the Founding Fathers acknowledged a deity, and that Abraham Lincoln was the first president to promote the national motto. He said that it’s easier to keep the state separate from a specific church or sectarian group than it is to separate religion from the American heritage. He cautioned against a “two-dimensional stripping of any kind of religious display in a public building.”
“Sensitivity has to be informed by a sense of history,” Caton said.
Contains reporting by Catholic News Service.