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The Ten Commandments (a.k.a. the Decalogue)

 Posting them in public schools, etc.

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This essay includes the following:

bullet Quotations
bullet Overview
bullet The 10 commandments:
bullet Formatting difficulties
bullet Their effects on readers
bullet Are they adequate and pertinent today?

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bullet "The problems we face in America are moral problems, which cannot be solved legislatively or judicially. We need a moral code to address them. There is no better educational and moral code than the Ten Commandments." Robert Schenck, founder of the National Clergy Council, a group which promotes the display of the Commandments in government offices.
bullet "The establishment clause [of the U.S. Constitution] prohibits government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief or from 'making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community'."  State Judge R. Marley Dennis Jr. of South Carolina, quoting in part the U.S. Supreme Court's 1984 ruling in Lynch v. Donnelly.

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Two very important factors affecting the legality of a display of the Ten Commandments are:

bullet The first four Commandments (or five, depending upon which version is used) are purely theological in content. They refer solely to the Jewish and Christian religions, and are often quite offensive to non-Judeo-Christians. Unless careful precautions are made, posting them in schools, government offices, etc. will violate the principle of separation of church and state mandated by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
bullet The remaining six or five Commandments are moral and ethical rules governing behavior, which are partly accepted by secularists and followers of other religions. 

The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, has been interpreted by the courts as guaranteeing that:

bullet individuals have freedom of religious expression;
bullet the government and its agencies will not:
bullet recognize one religious faith as more valid than any other;
bullet promote religion above secularism.
bullet promote secularism above religion.

These principles are continuously in a state of creative tension:

bullet Many Americans feel that part of their personal religious expression is to pray in public schools, have the Ten Commandments posted in their courts, government offices, public schools, etc.  They feel that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and remains one to the present time. Religious plaques posted in government buildings are simply one expression of this heritage. The right to display the Ten Commandments has become a topic of high priority to many conservative Christians groups. Some believe that a religious plaque placed in public schools is constitutional, if private funding is used to cover all costs.
bullet Most non-Christians, particularly secularists, are opposed to the display of the Ten Commandments by the government. They feel that freedom of religion also includes freedom from the dominant religion.
bullet Others feel that a wall of separation must be maintained between religion and the government and its agencies. They view this factor as outweighing any religious considerations that they might have. They object to all religious displays in public buildings.

Courts at various levels, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have ruled that the posting of isolated religious texts and symbols in any public buildings is unconstitutional. The reason given by the courts is that governments and public schools must remain neutral on religion. i.e. when the government or a school advocates (or appears to advocate):

bullet a specific religion, or 
bullet religion in general as preferable to a secular lifestyle, or
bullet a secular lifestyle in preference a religious lifestyle,

then they are violating the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Whether the costs of mounting the Ten Commandments is born by the government, school board or some private group appears to be immaterial. The Ten Commandments are permitted in certain special circumstances, as in some multi-faith, multi-national displays of ancient secular and religious laws.

The House of Representatives passed an "Ten Commandments Defense Act Amendment" to a juvenile crime bill in 1999-JUN. If it had been signed into law, this act would have allowed the display of the Ten commandments in any government facility, including public schools -- at least it would until it was declared unconstitutional by the courts. The law appears to fail all three criteria which have been proposed to test the constitutionality of laws with a religious content. Those representatives who voted in favor of the amendment violated their oath of office, which included a promise to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

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Difficulties in formatting the Ten Commandments

There are three versions of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). They are at Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Exodus 20 is the most commonly used set. However, some faith groups may promote one of the other versions.

There are more than 10 verses in the Exodus 20 version. Jews, Protestants and Roman Catholics have selected different formats for combining the 16 verses into 10 Commandments. A government or public school board may be entering a religious mine field when it attempts to reach a consensus on exactly what version and format to select.

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Effect of the Ten Commandments on its readers

Assuming that the constitutional problems could be overcome, there is major support for the posting of the Ten Commandments -- both in schools for students to follow, and in government offices or court rooms for citizens to follow. It would be continually before the public. It might act as a deterrent to unethical behavior. It might strengthen the resolve of individuals to act responsibly and morally. Since almost 80% of the North American population consider themselves to have a Judeo-Christian heritage, the Ten Commandments would be a logical choice. But an analysis of the individual commandments reveals a number of weaknesses in the Decalogue that might make it unsuitable for public posting.

In the analysis below, we use the Protestant/Eastern Orthodox format of Exodus 20 from the King James Version of the Bible. This is the listing that is familiar to most Americans. This is the likely version that governments or school boards would select. 

If the Decalog were publicly displayed, Roman Catholic and Jewish readers may well be surprised at seeing something other than their traditional version. This could create religious friction, leading to feelings of anger and of marginalization. Non-Christians might also feel alienated because a uniquely Judeo-Christian Biblical passage was posted. These emotions are precisely the root causes of the Columbine High School tragedy. Displaying the Ten Commandments has been promoted as a means of reducing school violence; it might well have the opposite effect.

1st Commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." (KJV) This may well convince the reader that the government or school board formally recognizes Jehovah as the only valid deity; worship or even showing respect for other Gods and Goddesses are forbidden. This could cause some Jewish and Christian readers to adopt a feeling of superiority, and to belittle other religions. This might lead to religious arrogance, intolerance, and even hatred. Followers of minority religions might feel marginalized by the dominant religion. This is probably the most damaging result of posting the Decalogue: the loss of mutual respect among followers of different religions, and the potential for violence. Followers of non-Judeo-Christian religions might feel abandoned by their government, and feel that they have become second class citizens because of their religious beliefs. Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists and other secularists, who would observe their government promoting religion over a secular belief system, might feel the same way.

2nd Commandment: 

bullet First part: "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 passage could confuse the reader, because it would appear to condemn photographs, paintings, sculpture, and many other forms of art. Strictly interpreted, it could disapprove watching TV, reading books, reading the newspaper -- all pastimes that are filled with images of things on earth and seas.
bullet Second part: I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." This could also confuse the reader. In this commandment, God promises to punish children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren for the crimes and unethical behaviors of their ancestors. That could conflict with most readers' moral beliefs which hold each individual responsible for their own behavior. In the days of Moses and the Ten Commandments, innocent children were sometimes killed because of the sins of their parents. However, most do not follow that code today. Most Americans find it repulsive to punish people for crimes committed by others before they were born.

3rd Commandment: "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain..."  Until recently, the phrase "taking God's name in vain" referred to breaking the terms of a binding contract over which an oath had been sworn. In all probability, the reader would misunderstand the original meaning of the Commandment and mistakenly interpret this passage as forbidding some forms of profanity where God or Jesus was mentioned by name. This commandment is misleading and confusing.

4th Commandment: 

bullet First part: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. This again might cause discord and confusion. Seventh Day Adventists, and other small Sabbatarian denominations that worship on Saturday might develop an arrogant attitude towards other faith groups. The vast majority of Christians worship on Sunday, the day after the Sabbath. Meanwhile, Christians who are not Sabbath worshipers might feel guilty for regularly violating God's commandment whenever they go to church on Sunday.
bullet Second part: "...thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant..." This could also result in confusion, as many people are aware that manservant and maidservant refer to male and female slaves. Some might feel that the Commandment implies that God accepts slavery as a natural part of society. This would conflict with many readers' belief that slavery is a profoundly despicable institution.

5th Commandment: "Honour thy father and thy mother: This commandment may well create a sense of confusion and guilt in those readers who are unable to honor parents who have physically or sexually abused them.  

6th Commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." Again, this might well create confusion in the mind of the reader who is quite aware that all citizens, themselves included, bear some degree of responsibility for the murder of criminals on death row, and of military and some civilians in wartime. Others might be confused over whether this passage is restricted to killing humans or whether it also condemns animal killing.

7th Commandment: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." A reader might be aware that this originally referred to men engaging in sexual intercourse with married or engaged women. It did not prohibit a married man from having sex with a single woman. This may lead the reader to take actions that could endanger their marriage. They might conclude that all other sexual activity is acceptable (non-coital sexual behavior; pre-marital sex between dating friends, inter-marital sex, homosexual activity, etc). This might not be the message that the government is attempting to promote.

8th Commandment: "Thou shalt not steal." The casual reader might interpret this passage as forbidding all forms of theft. This is misleading. The original text referred to kidnapping a person and selling them into slavery. In all probability, the reader would misunderstand the original meaning of the Commandment.

9th Commandment: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." This originally referred to perjury in a court of law. The reader might be confused and think that it refers to all forms of lying.

10th Commandment: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant..." Again, the reader might be confused by God's apparent acceptance of slavery as an acceptable social institution. The reader may have been taught that the owning of another human being as a piece of property is profoundly immoral. Also, the commandment implies that the neighbour's wife is something that he owns; a piece of property, like his house and slaves.

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Are the Ten Commandments adequate and pertinent today?

Traditional Christian belief is that the Ten Commandments were written for the ancient Israelites, perhaps 3,500 years ago. Their society differs greatly from ours:

IsraelitesNorth America
IsolatedBecoming part of the global village
Warlike neighborsPeaceful neighbors
Single cultureMulti-cultural
Single raceMulti-racial
Single religious faithMulti-faith
Religiously intolerantReligiously tolerant, mostly
Theocracy, dictatorshipDemocracy, at least in theory
Integration of church and stateSeparation of church and state
Polygyny allowedMonogamy and serial monogamy
Slavery allowedSlavery prohibited
Concubines allowedConcubines prohibited
Human sexuality:
bullet No contraceptives available
bullet No methods to prevent STD
bullet No treatments for STD
bullet No knowledge of sexual orientation
Human Sexuality:
bullet Contraceptives available
bullet Methods of STD prevention
bullet Cures for most STDs 
bullet Knowledge of sexual orientation

One might inquire whether the Ten Commandments are still useful today in their original form:

bullet They require people to believe in a specific God. They do not make allowance for multiple religions within the country, and for a bewildering array of denominations and traditions within each major religion. The theology of liberal and conservative Christians differ so much that it can be argued they are following different religions and worshiping different Gods.
bullet Some of the commandments seem immoral by today's religious and secular standards. Examples are:
bullet Punishing descendents for the crimes and sins of their ancestors;
bullet Allowing slavery;
bullet Listing a wife as a possession of a husband.
bullet Many of the Commandments, as translated in modern English versions of the Bible, have changed meaning of the original Hebrew text. 
bullet The Decalogue offers little or no guidance for the great ethical questions of today: cloning humans, equal rights for gays and lesbians, same-sex marriage, birth control, role of women, physician assisted suicide. By not defining the point between conception and birth when human personhood begins, it gives no guidance on whether women should have access to abortion. There is a no clear consensus within Christianity whether the 6th Commandment prohibits suicide or physician assisted suicide.
bullet Rabbi Simlai wrote in the Talmud that God gave 613 commandments to Moses to be recorded in the Pentateuch. It is obvious that when the Ten Commandments were written, they were a very incomplete guide for human behavior. They required about 590 other commandments to supplement the 22 or so in the Ten Commandments.
bullet A reader may well incorrectly conclude that if a behavior is not condemned in the Ten Commandments, then it may be an ethical choice. Pre-marital sex, child abuse, physical assault are three examples of activities not covered in the Decalogue that some people feel are immoral. 
bullet As noted above, some commandments may create feelings of dissention, marginalization, and anger among followers of minority religions. This could lead to increased violence among students and in society at large.

Perhaps courses in ethics, morality, comparative religion and tolerance  would be more adequate and effective than posting the Ten Commandments in a school. Alternatively, a simple posting of the school's student code of conduct might be much more useful, and less divisive, than the Decalogue.

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Related essays on this site

bullet Recent U.S. court rulings on separation of church and state
bullet The Istook Constitutional Amendment
bullet Prayer in the public schools

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Copyright 1999 to 2001 incl., and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 1999-JUL
Latest update: 2004-AUG-01
Author: B.A. Robinson

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