The Ten Commandments (a.k.a. the Decalogue): Posting them in public schools, etc.

Reference: Religious Tolerance

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

  • 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 offensive to non-Judeo-Christian. 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.
  • 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:

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

These principles are continuously in a state of creative tension;

  • Many American 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 of 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 Christian groups. Some believe that a religious plaque in public schools is constitutional, if private funding is used to cover all costs.
  • Most non-Christians, particularly secularists, are opposed to the display of the Ten Commandments by the government. They feel that freedom of religion is also includes freedom from the dominant religion.
  • 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 in 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):

  • A specific religion, or
  • Religion in general as preferable to a secular lifestyle, or
  • A secular lifestyle in preference to 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 multi0faith, 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 governmental 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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