"You have not shown any trace of respect for the rights of minority
religions to operate with a religiously unbiased court system. And that is
the root of this discussion. All else is distraction." Excerpt from a
posting to a Beliefnet discussion board, 2003-AUG-25.
"Let's get one thing
straight, this is about acknowledging God." Chief Justice Roy
"In this country, no individual or group, no matter how large or
powerful, can decree what religious ideals are to be held sacred for the
rest of society." Michael Newdow 1
The Ten Commandments and the U.S. Constitution:
Commandments (a/k/a. Decalogue) can be freely displayed almost anywhere in
the U.S.: in and around private homes, in businesses, in offices, etc.
However, it cannot be shown by itself in public parklands,
government offices, public schools, etc. With very few exceptions, courts have repeatedly ruled that
if the Decalogue cannot be
shown in isolation. That would be a violation of the principle of
separation of church and state which is contained
the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The separation principle involved three concepts:
Governments cannot promote one religion over another.
Governments cannot promote a religious lifestyle over a secular
Governments cannot promote a secular lifestyle over a religious
Placing the Ten Commandments in a public school room or in the
rotunda of a Justice Building would violate the first two of the above
criteria: It would promote Judaism and Christianity over other religions.
(Recall that almost half of the Ten Commandments refer to the necessity of worshiping Yahweh
alone.) Its presence in a government building would also promote a religious
lifestyle over a secular lifestyle. It would also give the impression that
the courts are Judeo-Christian institutions. Non-Judeo-Christians might well
be concerned about the possibility of them receiving justices at the hands
of such courts.
However, the exhibition of the Decalogue would be constitutional if it appears as one
element in a cultural display -- a grouping of religious and secular legal
In most cases, court rulings
are respected and implemented quickly. However, after Chief Justice Roy Moore
he was ordered to remove the granite monument containing the Decalogue in the Justice Building in Mongomery, AL,
he refused to comply.
Why does the U.S. Constitution require separation of church and state?
Briefly, when the Constitution was written, its authors were well aware of
the evils and massive loss of human life that had been experienced in Europe in
prior centuries because of inter- and intra-religious conflict. They reasoned
that the best way to avoid importing religiously-based hatred, oppression, mass
murder and genocide into the New World was to separate church and state,
religion and government, into two separate entities with a minimum of
Those who support the separation of church and state have concluded
that the arrangement has made governments, religious organizations and the
culture much stronger:
The U.S. is certainly the most religious large country in the developed
West. Christianity has largely failed in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and
Europe, as measured by public belief and church attendance.
America has avoided the type of massive disruptions and loss of life experienced
in recent decades during religious conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia,
Kosovo, Macedonia, Cyprus, Nigeria, Sudan, Middle East, Iraq/Iran,
Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, etc.
The U.S. is generally regarded as the most religiously diverse country
in the world. The percentage of individuals who identify themselves as
Christians is dropping by almost one percentage
point per year. Some feel that the separation of church and state is the
best policy to minimize future inter-religious conflicts as the country
becomes even more secular and religiously diverse.
Those who oppose the separation of church and state point out that:
America was founded as a Christian state by Christian
A substantial majority, about 75%, of its citizens are Christians.
Christian theological and moral beliefs, shared by most of its citizens,
adds great stability to the nation.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not
apply to the actions of state officials. This was initially true. The
First Amendment was originally written to limit only the powers of
Congress. In fact the Establishment Clause of the First
Amendment starts: "Congress shall make no law...." However the
U.S. Supreme Court has traditionally interpreted the Amendment as also applying to "other branches of government and government officials."
2 The Supreme Court has held for many decades that the Due
Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the
Constitution, which was passed after the Civil War, widens the
application of the First Amendment to include all state and local
The presence of the Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda
of the Justice Building is constitutional. i.e. it does not violate
the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Numerous
court decisions, including some by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
-- the court that ordered Chief Justice Moore to remove the monument --
have established that the Ten Commandments is a religious document. If it is displayed by itself in a public
school or in a federal, state or municipal government building, or on
government property anywhere, it violates the Establishment Clause
of the First Amendment because it has no secular purpose. Thus, the
presence of the monument in the building rotunda is unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Moore appears to have acknowledged that the monument has no
secular purpose. At a recent rally he said: "This case is not
about a monument and not about politics. Itís about the acknowledgement of
God." In his closing arguments before the 11th Circuit Court, he said:
"Can the state acknowledge God?í ... Indeed, we must acknowledge God
because our constitution says our justice system is established upon God.
For him to say that I canít say who God is, is to disestablish the justice
system of this state." 3
The courts have also established that the Ten Commandments can
legally form part of a cultural display if it is combined with documents
and artifacts from a variety of religions and from secular sources.
But it seems to have been the intent of Chief Justice Moore to display the
monument in isolation, perhaps implying that it is the sole origin of
The Federal Courts, specifically the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals, does not have the authority to order him, as Chief Justice of
the Supreme Court of Alabama, to remove the monument. This
argument recalls the conflict in Little Rock, AR, when Governor Faubus
blocked the door of a school house,
attempting to impose state law in contradiction of a court order to
integrate the schools. He, and the governors of some other Southern
states, argued that the federal courts had no authority to order them to
desegregate their schools. "In each case, the courts, including the
U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, principally relying upon the supremacy
clause of the Constitution. That clause makes federal law supreme over
conflicting state law." 2
While Chief Justice Moore's arguments may gain a great deal of support among
fellow Southerners who might wish that they are valid, it is extremely unlikely
that any would be accepted by an American court today.
Who is involved in the conflict?
The conflict over the Ten Commandments monument appears to be fueled by
Those who feel that the government, including its schools and courts,
should acknowledge in concrete ways that America was founded by Christians
on Christian principles, and that it remains a Christian country.
Those who feel that the principle of Separation
of Church and State is an important component of the U.S. Constitution
and is our greatest hope for future religious peace in the country.
Those who celebrate the religious freedom and religious diversity of
the United States -- the ability of each citizen to follow the religion of
Those who feel an obligation to obey the laws of the land, even if
this is in conflict with their need to grant public recognition to their
God and their God's laws.
Exactly what principles are involved in the conflict?
It is important to understand precisely what is involved in this case:
It is not about preventing the public from freely viewing the The
Commandments. There are literally thousands of locations in Montgomery
where the monument could be legally installed for all to see: on church
grounds, commercial land, private parks, etc.
It is not about preventing the monument from being located in the Justice
Building. Judge Thompson of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has
allowed it to be relocated from the rotunda to a different location in the
It is entirely about:
Whether the monument can be located specifically in the rotunda of the
Justice Building, the main focal point of the structure.
Whether the law of the land should command greater allegiance from its
citizens than their belief in publicly recognizing the supremacy of Yahweh.
What does the Bible say about obeying governments and courts?
Jerry Falwell, and other speakers at the 2003-AUG rally appear to recommend
that Judge Moore and the public at large refuse to obey the rulings of the
court. The Montgomery Advertiser, in its coverage of the rally, noted: "A
common belief among people interviewed at the rally was that Moore has a right
to civilly disobey a federal judge's orders if they (sic) believe God's law is
supreme." This belief appears to conflict with several passages in the
Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and Christian Scriptures (New Testament) which state that it is a citizen's duty to
obey the magistrate:
Proverbs 28:12: "Those who forsake the law praise the
wicked, but those who keep the law resist them."
Romans 13:1-4: "Let every soul be subject unto the
higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be
are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power,
resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to
themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but
to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which
is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the
minister of God to thee for good...."
1 Peter 2:13-14: "Submit yourselves to every ordinance
of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or
unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment
of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well."
Titus 3:1: "Put them in mind to be subject to
principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every
On another note, Exodus 20:4 states:
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any
likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth
beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." This is the
first of the Ten Commandments, according to Roman Catholic church and some
Lutheran denominations. It is the second Commandment according to other
Christian denominations and Jews. A good case can be made that the monument
installed by Chief Justice Moore can be considered a religious "graven
image." It is a likeness of the Bible -- a "thing" that is on the
earth. It is ironic that the creation of a monument to the Ten
Commandments may be considered forbidden by one of the Ten