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The Ten Commandments:

What they are.
Should they all be followed?
Legal challenges. Attempts to
remove 10 Commandment statues.

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10 Commandments plate What the Ten Commandments are:

The Ten Commandments (a.k.a. Decalogue) are a listing of some of the most important of the 613 mitzvot (commandments, behavioral rules) in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament).

bulletWithin Judaism, they have historically been accepted as a summary of the most important ten rules of behavior which God expects all Jews to follow. The Torah records that God gave the Decalogue to Moses on Mount Sinai, inscribed on stone tablets, and intended for the guidance of the ancient Hebrews. They form a small but vital part of the total of 623 laws in the Hebrew Scriptures.

bullet Within Christianity, the Decalogue has traditionally been regarded as the foundational laws that all Christians are to conform to. Most Christians continue to hold them in high regard, even though they have rejected most of the other laws in the Mosaic Code as no longer applicable to or binding on them.


Within Islam, the religion's holy book -- the Qur'an -- appears to refer to the Decalogue and to urge that they be followed; however it does not contain the actual text:

007.145 "And We ordained laws for him in the tablets in all matters, both commanding and explaining all things, (and said): 'Take and hold these with firmness, and enjoin thy people to hold fast by the best in the precepts'..."

The term "Decalogue" or "Decalog" is derived from the Middle English "decaloge" which comes from the Latin "decalogus," which in turn originates from the Greek "dekalogus." "Deka" in Greek means "ten".

The Ten Commandments are a brief summary of certain basic rules of behavior. They do not specifically address some of the most active of today's moral controversies, such as abortion, corporal punishment of children, the death penalty, equal rights for homosexuals, same-sex marriage, physician assisted suicide, pre-marital sex, etc.

There are three versions of the Decalogue mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament). All are different. They are at Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. The version in Exodus 20 is by far the most commonly cited.

Depending upon how Ten Commandments are interpreted, the Exodus 20 version contain a total of 19 to 25 separate instructions. These have been traditionally sorted into ten groups. Unfortunately, various faith groups sort them differently. This makes inter-faith dialog difficult at times, and can cause conflicts over which version of the Decalogue is to be displayed.

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Do Christians follow the Ten Commandments?

Although the Ten Commandments are held in high respect by many Christians, two of them are routinely broken by some Christian denominations -- at least if they are interpreted literally: 

bulletThe prohibition against "any graven image, or any likeness of any thing...," if interpreted literally, would seem to forbid a wide range of objects, including a statue in a church, a cross, a crucifix, or even to a photograph of a person. However, many denominations do not interpret this passage in isolation or do not interpret it literally. This allows Eastern Orthodox churches to display icons, Roman Catholic churches to contains statues,  and many Protestant churches to contain drawings and/or photographs.


Reserving the Sabbath (Saturday) as a day of rest. The vast majority of churches have their main services on Sunday. Only Sabbatarian denominations, like the Seventh Day Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists, have services on Saturday.

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Should everyone follow all of the Ten Commandments?

The U.S. is the most religiously diverse country in the world. Southern Ontario in Canada is regarded as the most religiously diverse region of any country in the world. Both nations share a legacy of religious freedom and religious tolerance. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as requiring a complete separation of church and state. Canadian culture largely separates church and state by tradition.

However, the Ten Commandments were created within an entirely different culture with very different expectations of its citizens. It was a ancient Hebrew theocracy where church and state were blended. Everyone was expected to follow the state religion. A person proselytizing a different faith could find themselves sentenced to death.

This culture clash has produced criticisms of some commandments within the Decalogue:

bullet The first commandment requires that no god other than Yahweh is to be worshipped. This is in open conflict with the "first freedom" in the U.S. and Canada -- religious freedom which allows people to freely believe or to refuse to believe in any God, Goddess, or a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. Since the attributes assigned to God within Judaism, Islam, Christianity and other theistic religions are quite different, the first commandment could be used to ban freedom of belief, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of proselytizing, etc. within any theistic religion.

bullet The second commandment, interpreted literally, punishes a man's children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and perhaps even great-great grandchildren if the man has sinned by serving other Gods. Spreading the responsibility for one person's sin onto innocent descendents was common in the ancient Middle East. However, most contemporary ethical systems -- both secular and religious -- prohibit scapegoating -- the transfer of guilt and punishment from the guilty to the innocent. Modern systems hold a person responsible only for their own actions. Punishing innocent children for deeds performed by their parents or more distant ancestors is widely considered a profoundly immoral act. Similarly, holding an entire group responsible for an evil deed of one member or a small sub-group of that group is proflundly immoral by most moral and ethical systems.
bullet The fifth commandment requires that children honor their parents. Many would feel that it is unreasonable to require a child to honor a parent who was a sexual molester, a physical abuser, or was guilty of neglect.

bulletThere are two problems associated with the tenth commandment:
bullet It treats women as pieces of property, and

bullet It condones slavery. The terms "manservant" and "maidservant" in the King James Version of the Bible do not refer to butlers and maids. Actually, they refer to male and female slaves.

Equal treatment and freedoms for men and women form an integral part of many religious groups' beliefs and teachings.

Essentially all North American religious groups reject the concept of owning another human being in a state of slavery.

Commandments 1,2,5, and 10 are thus seriously deficient in terms of modern ethical and religious systems. We recommend that they be retired from service, leaving only 7 commandments to be followed.

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What the public believes about the Ten Commandments:

There is a gap between what the Ten Commandments actually state, and what the public perceives that they say.  Most people incorrectly believe that all of the Commandments govern moral behavior in society: to not lie, steal, commit adultery, etc. In reality, the first four commandments are religious in nature, uniquely related to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They are offensive to the followers of many other religions. Only the last six relate to moral behavior in society.

A widely believed misunderstanding is that the entire Decalogue forms the foundation for the North American legal system. The statement by Sonny Crawford and Pat Lazenby, grand presidents of the Order of Eagles is typical. [The Eagles is the service group that sponsored the installations of hundreds of monuments containing the text of the Decalogue across the U.S.] They wrote in a joint statement:

"The Fraternal Order of Eagles has promoted the Ten Commandments not in an attempt to impose religion on the masses, but rather in recognition of their role in the very foundation of our legal system. ... Our very laws are built on the bedrock moral precepts of the Ten Commandments."

This is only partly true. The first half of the Ten Commandments are a series of commands about the recognition of God. It is only the second half that deal with actual behavior towards other humans. The latter are not unique to the Ten Commandmants; they are common to almost all religious systems and are seen in many religious and secular law codes -- some of which preceded the Ten Commandments. I reality, law codes in the U.S. and the rest of the western world are derived from a variety of sources, including the Ten Commandments and Roman laws which were based on their ancient Pagan religion.

Some North Americans feel that everyone should follow all of the Ten Commandments, whether they be Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan, etc. They push for the Decalogue to be posted in schools, court houses, publicly owned parks, etc. where people will get the impression that the governments and school boards promote Judeo-Christianity.

Others feel that posting the Decalogue can generate religious conflict, and make some of the public feel like second-class citizens. Some feminists, civil libertarians and others find portions of the Ten Commandments repulsive. They favor restricting the Decalogue to religious and other private property and not displayed in public public.

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Legal battles about displaying the Ten Commandments:

Governments in the U.S., 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.  

Posting the Ten Commandments clearly promotes the main Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam. By requiring religious services on Saturday and threatening people if they do not worship Yahweh, the Commandments denigrate followers of the remaining world religions and the religiously non-affiliated which comprise by slightly under half of the human population. Thus, to be constitutional, the Ten Commandments cannot be posted on public land in isolation. They can only be displayed along with other sets of religious laws in order to meet the first criteria. They must be accompanied with secular laws to meet the second criteria. That is, they would have to be part of a cultural display.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Fraternal Order of Eagles erected as many as 4,000 markers, statues, and monuments featuring the Ten Commandments in public parks, government buildings, etc. Some were involved in the promotion of the 1956 film, The Ten Commandments, and were dedicated with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner present. They played Moses and the unnamed Egyptian Pharaoh in the movie.

There were occasional lawsuits filed prior to 2002 to force the removal of these monuments from public land. In 2001. the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court order that a Ten Commandments monument in Elkhart, IN, be removed. It has since refused to hear similar cases. Conflict escalated in 2002-NOV, when U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled that the presence of Chief Justice Moore's Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama state courts building "constitutes government endorsement of religion.

Chief Justice Moore refused to remove the monument. He was later relieved of his responsibilities and the monument was subseqently removed by others. However, his refusal to follow the court order gained him so much public support that he was re-elected as chief justice years later.

Since 2001, dozens of lawsuits have been launched across the U.S.  Many have been launched by branches of the American Civil Liberties Union in different states, and by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

USA Today reported in 2004:

"Monument opponents say that America's increased [religious] diversity accounts for many of the lawsuits. 'The religious motivation (of the monuments) was not as obvious when there weren't as many religious minorities or people with no religion,' says the Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.'  The lawsuits are occurring 'because [opponents] now feel they have a shot at winning. But the cases are a declaration that [the monuments are] important, too'.'"

"The case Wednesday [2004-SEP-15] by a federal appeals court in St. Louis reflects the issues in many of the disputes. On one side, John Doe, an unidentified atheist and ACLU member in rural Nebraska, said the Ten Commandments monument in a park in the town of Plattsmouth 'alienates' him and makes him feel like a 'second-class citizen,' according to court papers. The monument -- a 5-foot granite slab presented by the Eagles in 1965 -- amounts to 'Judeo-Christian' religious instruction, Doe argues. Doe, who filed suit anonymously to try to avoid a backlash in the town of 6,800, has won in a lower court." 1

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One woman's personal quest:

Sue A Hoffman is the author of the book: "In Search of God and the Ten Commandments: One Person's Journey to Preserve a Small Part of America's God-given Values and Freedoms." 2 It was published during 2014-JUN. She spent thirteen years traveling around the United States searching out and photographing the 184 known existing Ten Commandment monoliths.

She is in favor of preserving all 184 and is strongly opposed to the removal or relocation of any of the monuments from public land. In mid-2014, there were three active lawsuits based on the principle of separation of church and state contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It was written to create a "wall of separation" between governments and religious faiths.

Two monoliths were subsequently removed and relocated off of public land. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (Americans United) have taken the lead in promoting these cases. Ms. Hoffman blames this opposition to "atheist organizations," and seems to see the conflict in terms of anti-religious groups battling with patriotic Americans. She may not be aware that the head of Americans United is Rev. Barry Lynn, and a minister in the United Church of Christ. 3

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  1. Richard Willing, "More courts hearing Commandment battles," USA Today, 2004-SEP-16, at:
  2. Book cover image Sue A Hoffman, "In Search of God and the Ten Commandments: One Person's Journey to Preserve a Small Part of America's God-given Values and Freedoms" (2014). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store customers rated the book with 4.8 stars out of 5. Amazon sells it in paperback format for US$ 41.46. Less expensive copies can often be obtained used.

  3. "Barry Lynn," Americans United, at:

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Copyright © 2004 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-SEP-22
Latest update: 2016-MAY-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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