The Ten Commandments (a.k.a. the
Legal & constitutional aspects
This essay includes material on the following topics:
Most people's recollection of the Ten Commandments centers on the "thou shalt not"
requirements: to not murder, steal, commit adultery, lie in court, covet the neighbor's possessions, etc. 1 Many
feel that these rules are nearly universal; they are followed by adherents of all of the world's religions; they are a useful
standard for everyone to base their values upon. Thus the posting of the Ten Commandments may be viewed as an innocuous decision
which shouldn't offend anybody. The Commandments are very widely held ethical standards that everyone agrees with. They may elevate
the readers' spirituality and encourage them to act morally.
Posting a series of commands, paraphrased from the Protestant version of Commandments 5 to 10, might well be quite legal,
because it represents commonly held beliefs by Christians, Jews, followers of non-Judeo-Christian religions, Agnostics,
Atheists, Humanists, and other secularists. The references to slavery might be a
little dated; categorizing a wife as a possession might disturb some feminists. But the following sign would be generally innocuous:
But to add the following four commandments to the above six instructions would probably
make the notice quite unconstitutional, if they were posted in a public school,
on government land, in a government building, etc.
The combination would be clearly unconstitutional because it contains a purely theological component
that is unique to Judaism and Christianity. By posting the Ten Commandments, a
government or school is in effect telling its citizens and students:
||That Yahweh/Jehovah is the only
or most senior God.
Gods and Goddesses of Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Wicca and hundreds of other
religions are non-existent and/or are deities that are inferior to the one
true God: Jehovah. By government decree, they are
not to be worshipped.
||Students and citizens have an obligation to worship Him.
||Saturday is a religiously imposed time of rest.
||Saturday is the only appropriate day for weekly religious observance.
||A religious lifestyle is superior to a secular one.
By posting the Ten Commandments,
the government would make a strong statement against tolerance of
non-Judeo-Christian religions. This would take a major step towards establishing
an official state religion. It would also increase divisions within the
school or office along religious lines. If the goal is to decrease school
shootings and violence, it might be best to not post the Ten Commandments,
unless they are accompanied by similar codes of other religions and of secular
Monuments to the Ten Commandments:
Director Cecil B. DeMille's made two films based on the Jewish Exodus from
Egypt, titled the Ten Commandments. The first was in 1923. The movie set
is now an archaeological dig. 10 The second, a blockbuster
movie hit in color, was released in 1956. 11 As a method of
publicizing the latter film DeMille joined with the Fraternal Order of Eagles
-- a volunteer men's service organization -- to erect a series of monuments
containing the text of the Ten Commandments on municipal land throughout
the U.S. 12 Apparently hundreds of granite monuments were
donated to municipalities by the Eagles. The American Civil Liberty
Association (ACLU) and other groups devoted to the
separation of church and state have initiated dozens of lawsuits to have
these monuments removed completely or at least relocated to non-government land.
One case that achieved national prominence was in Elkhart, IN. An Eagles
monument has stood outside the municipal building since 1958. A lengthy and
expensive legal battle ensued. The monument was found constitutional by a
District Court judge in 1999. On appeal, the U.S. Seventh
Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was unconstitutional. In
2001, the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who declined to hear the
case. In 2002, the Supreme Court also turned down the opportunity to hear a similar case from
Indiana. At least four of the nine Supreme Court justices must agree before the
court will accept a case. The Court's three most conservative Justices wanted
the court to hear the Elkhart case. Justice William Rehnquist said that the
monument "simply reflects the Ten Commandments' role in the development of
our legal system. [It is]...part of the city's celebration of its cultural and
historical roots, not a promotion of religious faith." Justices Clarence
Thomas and Antonin Scalia agreed. 13
Federal laws and resolutions:
A number of Federal resolutions and bills have been proposed recently. All
seem clearly unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of
the establishment clause of the
1st Amendment. Since they are so
obviously unconstitutional, it is obvious that the legislators who propose these
bills are violating their oath of office which requires them to support the U.S.
||1998-APR - Senate Resolution: Senator Jeff Sessions, (R-AL), introduced
a non-binding resolution in 1998-APR which called for the Ten Commandments to be
displayed in government buildings. It was adopted unanimously. It states,
in part: "The Ten Commandments set forth a code of moral conduct,
observance of which is acknowledged to promote respect for our system of laws
and the good of society."
||1998-JUL - House Bill: Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) introduced the "Ten
Commandments Defense Act" in Congress in 1998-JUL. HR 4154 would make
government displays of Christian religious beliefs constitutional. It states in
"The organic laws of the United States Code and the constitution of
every state, using various expressions, recognize God as the source of the
blessings of liberty...[and therefore the] power to display the Ten Commandments
on or within property owned or administered by the several States or political
subdivisions thereof is hereby declared to be among the powers reserved to the
The law goes further than merely promote the Commandments. It would appear to
permit the government to promote all types of religious activity in its offices,
parks, etc. It says that the:
"expression of religious faith by individual persons on or within
property owned or administered by the several states or political subdivisions
thereof is hereby declared to be among the rights secured against laws
respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of
religion made or enforced by the United States Government or by any department
or executive or judicial officer."
Among the supporters of this bill at the launch news conference were
three of the largest conservative Chistian activist groups: Focus on the
Family, the Family Research Council and Prison Fellowship.
2Concerned Women for America also supports the bill. The bill did not
progress. There was no Senate version.
The full text is online. 4 It
appears to have been superceded by the following bill.
||1999-JUN - House Bill: On
1999-JUN-17, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 248 to 180 to attach a
"Ten Commandments Defense Act Amendment" to the Juvenile
Justice Reform Act of 1999 (H.R.1501.PCS) Section 1202 of the bill
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY RIGHTS DECLARED.
(a) DISPLAY OF TEN COMMANDMENTS - The power
to display the Ten Commandments on or within property owned or
administered by the several States or political subdivisions thereof is hereby
declared to be among the powers reserved to the States respectively.
(b) EXPRESSION OF RELIGIOUS FAITH- The expression of
religious faith by individual persons on or within property owned or
administered by the several States or political subdivisions thereof is
(1) declared to be among the rights secured against laws
respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of
religion made or enforced by the United States Government or by any
department or executive or judicial officer thereof; and
(c) EXERCISE OF JUDICIAL POWER- The courts constituted,
ordained, and established by the Congress shall exercise the judicial power in
a manner consistent with the foregoing declarations.
(2) declared to be among the liberties of which no State
shall deprive any person without due process of law made in pursuance of
powers reserved to the States respectively.
If signed into law, it would allow
states to authorize the display of the Ten Commandments in
U.S. public schools, courts, and public buildings. The chances of this type of amendment
passing a constitutional challenge in the courts is essentially zero, because
||Would give special recognition to Christianity and Judaism and thus, by
implication, denigrate other religions, and
||Would imply that a religiously based life as superior to a secular
Both of these factors are prohibited by the U.S. Supreme Court's
interpretation of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
We suspect that almost all of the 248 representatives are aware of its
unconstitutionality. Most are probably lawyers; almost all would have more than
a Grade 10 knowledge of constitutional law. "These 248 congressmen
violated their oaths to support the Constitution by voting for a bill that
clearly violates the 1st Amendment." 5 Members of congress
are apparently free to violate their oaths without being held accountable.
On JUN-18, The Education Secretary issued a statement on this bill, saying:
"...the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled that it is unconstitutional
for a state to require posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools...Any
student in an American public school today can pray, bring a Bible to school,
say grace at lunch or voluntarily participate in 'see you at the
gatherings. The religious rights of all students -- Christian, non-Christian, and non-believers
as well -- are very well protected...Religion is very much alive and well in
America's public schools." 6 Further
developments about the act
||1999-JUL - House concurrent resolution: Representative Stearns submitted a
concurrent resolution to the House of Representatives (H. CON. RES. 150):
Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring),
That the Ten Commandments shall be prominently posted for
display in the chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate of the
Typical court decisions in the past:
||1980: Kentucky: In
1980, the U.S. Supreme court ruled unanimously in Stone
v. Graham. The state law had mandated the posting of the Ten Commandments in every
public school classroom in the state. In its decision, the Supreme Court found
that there was no secular purpose in posting the Commandments. They wrote:
"The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on
schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments are
undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no
legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that
The case did not involve circumstances in which the "Ten
Commandments are integrated into the school curriculum, where the Bible may
constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization,
ethics, comparative religion, or the like...Posting of religious texts on the
wall serves no such educational function. If the posted copies of the Ten
Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the
schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the
Commandments. However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion,
it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause."
||1993: Cobb County, GA: In 1993, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals ruled that a display of the Ten Commandments in a Georgia courthouse
violated the separation of church and state. (Harvey vs. Cobb County).
||1999: Charleston County, S.C.: During 1997, the Charleston County Council voted to display the
Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) both inside and outside of its chambers. Three
local residents, with the help of Americans United for Separation of Church
and State sued the county. South Carolina judge R. Markley Dennis, Jr.,
ruled in 1999-MAR-25 that the plaques had to be removed. 7 He determined that
violated the establishment clause of the first Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution. He wrote that "this court has little choice but to find
that the resolution at issue, and the subsequent display of the Ten
Commandments, were in violation of the Establishment Clause because they endorse
religion in general and Judeo-Christianity in particular." Attorneys
for the state had contend that pictures of former council chairmen and other
secular items surrounded the Commandments, and created a display that was
largely secular in nature. Judge Dennis disagreed; he felt that the pictures did
not hide the codes' religious meaning. County council gave the appearance
that it was endorsing religion.
The attorney for the county apparently realized that the case was hopeless,
and decided to not file an appeal.
Legally posting the Ten commandments in schools and
It is difficult to visualize how the Ten Commandments can be constitutionally
posted, by itself, in a court room or government office. However, it can appear
as one text in a multi-faith/multi-national display of law codes. If someone were to prepare an exhibit of
codes, perhaps involving the Code of Hammurabi (an 18th century
BCE king of
Babylon), the Ten Commandments, some ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek secular
and religious laws codes, the British Magna Carta, U.S. Constitution, etc. then the resultant display would probably be
constitutional in a government location. Two examples of this are:
County Commission in Indiana signed an agreement on 1997-DEC-8 with
the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. The settlement called for "the
Ten Commandments to be posted in the Grant County Courthouse as part of the
historical documents display." 8
||The Altoona Area School District in Pennsylvania announced
on 2000-FEB-28 that they would display a group of documents in their
school libraries. Included are a selection of readings dealing with
Humanism, Judeo-Christianity, gay rights, and Wicca. The Ten
Commandments are also there, along with Affirmations of Humanism, The
Cycle of the Goddess (Wiccan), History of the Pink Triangle
(gay/lesbian), The Golden Rule (Baha'i). Documents are submitted by
the public. A school district spokesperson commented: "It
has been pretty quiet so far. I think people are smart enough to
realize that if you allow that for one [part of the] community ...
it opens the door." 9
As inferred in the Supreme Court decision cited above, the Ten Commandments
could be displayed, read, and analyzed by teachers and students within
"an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative
religion, or the like." But the course could not be a study that was
restricted to Christianity; it would have to involve study of a range of
religions and cultures.
Public school students are often given wide freedom in the selection of topics for personal
projects and essays. Students might be asked to choose one law code and to analyze and
present it in the form of a report. Under these circumstances, a student would
be free to
choose the Ten Commandments. Their freedom to make this selection is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Since
the selection would be by the by the student, and not
a imposed by the school system, it would probably be constitutional.
Related essays on this site
"The Ten Commandments," Electric Library, at: http://www.encyclopedia.com/articles/12716.html
"[Gary] Bauer hails introduction of the Ten Commandments defense
act," Family Research Council, at: http://www.frc.org/press/062598c.html
Jeremy Leaming, "Congressman introduces law to permit government
display of religious codes," Freedom Forum, at: http://www.freedomforum.org/religion/1998/7/9tendefenseact.asp
"H.R. 4154 - the Ten Commandments Defense Act," text as
of 1998-AUG-22 at: http://www.witchvox.com/wren/wren_archives/wn_we_980822.html
Alan Dershowitz, "Ten Commandments aren't gun control,"
Los Angeles Times, 1999-JUN-20. See: http://www.latimes.com:80/excite/990620/t000055467.html
"Education Secretary statement on Ten Commandments House vote,"
U.S. Newswire, 1999-JUN-18.
Jeremy Leaming, "S.C. judge invalidates posting of Ten
Commandments in county building," Freedom Forum, at: http://www.freedomforum.org/religion/1999/3/26commandments.asp
"County officials to modify display featuring the Ten
Commandments," at: http://www.freedomforum.org/religion/news/971208.asp
"School district to display beliefs of gays, Wiccans, Atheists,"
Associated Press, 2000-FEB-29.
"Site of the 1923 Filming of the Ten Commandments," at:
"The Ten Commandments," at:
"Circuit court rules for 'Aphorisms' as squabbles over religious
sloganeering, commandments continue," AANews, 2002-AUG-1.
Jay Sekulow, "What's the Problem With Public Displays of the Ten
American Center for Law and Justice, at:
Copyright © 1999 to 2004 incl., by Ontario Consultants on
Originally posted: 1999-JUL
Latest update: 2004-AUG-01
Author: B.A. Robinson