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 THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

LEGAL DEVELOPMENTS: 1999

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Overview:

There are three sets of Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). The most commonly used is a list of rules of behavior contained in the book of Exodus. Because of the principle of separation of church and state in the U.S., there are very strict rules concerning the posting of the Ten Commandments in government offices, including classrooms in public schools. 

Governments, including public school boards, are required to remain neutral on religious matters. This means that:

  1. They cannot promote one religion over another.
  2. They cannot promote a religious lifestyle over a secular one.
  3. They cannot promote a secular lifestyle over a religious one.  

To be constitutional, the Ten Commandments cannot be posted in isolation. They can only be displayed along with other sets of religious laws in order to meet the first criteria. They would have to be accompanied with secular laws to meet the second criteria. i.e. they would have to be part of a cultural display. A display in the U.S. Supreme Court is a typical example:

bulletThree religious leaders are shown:
bulletThe Jewish Patriarch, Moses holds the Ten Commandments.
bulletConfucius is shown, representing Confucianism.
bulletMohammed appears, representing Islam and Shar'ia law.
bulletFour secular leaders are shown:
bulletCaesar Augustus, a Roman emperor
bulletWilliam Blackstone, a famous legal expert from Britain
bulletNapoleon Bonaparte, a leader of France.
bulletJohn Marshall, chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1801 to 1835.

"Justice Stevens has stated that the placement of all of these historic figures together on the frieze signals a respect for great lawgivers, not great proselytizers..." 1

Many individuals who are neither Jews, Christians nor Muslims oppose the posting of the Ten Commandments, because the first half of the document is totally theological in nature, requiring the reader to follow certain religious rituals, and avoiding other religious behaviors in worshiping Jehovah. Some who oppose the posting of the Commandments point out that the main cause of school shootings is the prior marginalization of minorities. Posting the Ten Commandment may well increase the harassment of religious minorities and might lead to increased school violence.

Supporters of the posting of the Ten Commandments frequently point out an alleged degeneration in morality in American culture in recent decades. They often link it the U.S. Supreme Court's ban on Christian prayers and the recitation of Bible verses in the early 1960s as marking the start of a long decline. As one supporter in Elkhart, IN, said: "Things are getting out of control...I'm in favor of posting them. We have to do something."

This essay continues below.

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Year 1999 legal challenges and court decisions:

bullet1999-AUG: Kentucky: The Jackson County (KY) school board allowed a number of volunteers to post a copy of the Ten Commandments in every classroom in the county. According to Betty Bond, principal of Jackson County High School, the school board and superintendent decided to have the Decalog posted in "an effort to start having good morals in school...because of all the violent issues that have been showing up." The local district attorney, Timothy Crawford, has an interesting legal theory. He believes that since the plaques were paid for and physically attached to the walls by local volunteers, that the posting is constitutional. He commented: "I don't believe posting the Ten Commandments is imposing anyone's religious views because the kids are not tested on that, the kids are not required to look at it, and the kids are not required to read it, and they're not held accountable for that knowledge...There was virtually no opposition from the community about the plaques, and students returning to the high said little about them." 2

Other schools have had the Ten Commandments posted at public schools for some time:
bulletAdams County, OH, has them in front of 4 high schools. They were placed there by local ministers to reverse "moral decline."
bulletThe Union chapel Elementary School in Russell County KY has posted them for years.
bullet1999-SEP-26: Georgia: The mayor and all 4 commissioners in Brunswick GA support the posting of the Ten Commandments on city buildings. The idea was initiated by Peter Vivenzio, a local businessman. He said that the idea has nothing to do with religion; it "has to do with character...I'm here to ask you to take a stand to help take America back...Thirty-four percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence quoted the Bible directly. Sixty-four percent quoted it indirectly." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United (AU) have indicated their opposition. Gary Weber, spokesperson for the Georgia ACLU said that the city "would likely face a lawsuit...The City of Brunswick should assure that people feel welcome in all public facilities regardless of their religion." Supporters of the idea plan to adopt an unusual strategy: the framed prints would be provided free of charge to the city and would be hung and maintained by volunteers. They hope that by having no city money involved, that their actions will be constitutional. 3
bullet1999-OCT-21: U.S. Congress: The Religion Today mailing list reported that the Family Research Council will be giving a framed copy of the Ten Commandments to 30 members of Congress who have agreed to post them in their office. A spokesperson for the FRC said: "By posting them in public places, members will send a clear message that the Ten Commandments are an integral part of public life and should be posted to promote a virtuous and civil society." This is the start of a campaign to encourage public officials throughout the U.S. to post the Ten Commandments.

The People for the American Way announced that it would send copies of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to the members of Congress who will be posting the Ten Commandments in their offices. They will also be suitable for framing. President Carole Shields commented: "We thought we should send a reminder that the Founders did not intend for our government to endorse any particular religion. The simple messages of the Ten Commandments are timeless and sacred to many of us as a matter of our religious faith.  But they are a religious symbol - specifically, a symbol of Christianity and Judaism.  When the government honors particular religious traditions above others, it excludes millions of individuals from other faiths and those who choose not to practice any religion -- and that is not what this country is all about. We are a nation that makes room for everyone." She continued: "This campaign politicizes the Ten Commandments by making them yet another weapon in the Religious Right's crusade to erode the wall between church and state. We hope that when these members of Congress receive their copy of the First Amendment, they'll be reminded of the great religious liberties we enjoy in the United States, thanks to the Bill of Rights: freedom to exercise our own religion, and freedom from government-sanctioned religions."
bullet1999-OCT-23: Federal Law: The House of Representatives attached its Ten Commandments Defense Act as an amendment to the Juvenile Justice Bill. The act does not appear in the Senate version of the bill. Some comments on the Bill:
bulletRep. Robert Aderholt stated "Something is wrong in America when our children can wear T-shirts that are emblazoned with profanity, that are emblazoned with violence, in the name of free speech, but simply the words, 'Thou shalt not kill,' cannot be in our schools." [Author's note: Rep. Aderhold is wrong. Any public school student can wear a T-shirt with this message.]
bulletJanet Parshall, spokesperson for the Family Research Council said that when public school students "walk through the hallways, they see a sign that says 'No shouting in the hall. No pushing. No shoving. Gym class begins at 3:00.' Why not one that says, 'It's a good idea not to kill and not to take something that doesn't belong to you'?" [Author's note: There is no restriction on a public school posting a sign of this type. However, the 1st Amendment prohibits posting of the Ten commandments which is a religious document.]
bulletIn response to the suggestion by others that posting of the Ten Commandments might cause religious divisiveness, the Rev. Rob Schenk commented: "The Ten Commandments actually unify us. Jews, Christians and Muslims all agree that they are words from God, and virtually every other religious system on earth endorses them." [Author's note: We are at a loss to understand his statement. The first half of the Ten Commandments consist of instructions to worship only Yahweh, to set aside Saturday as a day of rest and worship, etc. Non-Abrahamic religions certainly do not endorse these commands.]
bullet1999-NOV: California: The Val Verde Board of Education voted to reverse its policy of displaying the Ten Commandments in its district offices, after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue. 
bullet1999-NOV-18: Kentucky: The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against McCreary, Pulaski and Harlan country school boards for unconstitutional displays of the Decalogue.
bullet1999-NOV-26: California: Fred Workman, school superintendent at the Val Verde, CA, school board, asked that the Ten Commandments be posted in the offices of the school district. The school board initially agreed. Under pressure from several parents and the American Civil Liberties Union, they  reversed their decision. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said that "schools needed to find alternatives to dealing with student behavior. We need to teach our children to respect all people, not just people of their own faith."
bullet1999-NOV-27: Georgia: The Glynn County School Board in southeast Georgia asked its attorney to "come up with a display of historic non-religious documents that would contain the Ten Commandments." Gerry Weber, the legal director of the Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said posting the Ten Commandments constitutes the endorsement of a particular religion. He said the group will try to stop the Glynn County school board. 3

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Continue with events from the year 2000

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Related essays on this site:

bulletA detailed analysis of the Ten Commandments
bulletRecent U.S. court rulings on separation of church and state
bulletThe Istook Constitutional Amendment
bulletPrayer in the public schools

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Site navigation: Home page > Religious LawsTen Commandments > here

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References:

  1. "Atheist director wins as federal circuit court strikes Ten Commandment monument in Indiana," AANEWS for 2000-DEC-13.
  2. "Kentucky school board reposts Ten Commandments" at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/00b/20010102b.htm
  3. "ACLU vows to fight Glynn school display," Associated Press, online at: http://www.accessatlanta.com:80/news/1999/11/27/glynn.html

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Copyright © 2000, to 2005, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JUL
Latest update: 2005-NOV-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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