The Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C.-based Religious Right group, recently announced a new initiative it calls "Hang Ten." FRC's project encourages public school authorities and other government officials to post the Ten Commandments at public buildings. The movement has caught on in several Kentucky counties recently, and FRC is trying to make it a nationwide phenomenon.
According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, government display of religious codes, whether at public schools, city halls, courtrooms or other government facilities, is a bad idea. Why? Here are ten good reasons:
- The Constitution mandates the separation of church and state. This means government is forbidden to meddle in matters of religion. Promotion of religious ideals is the job of America's houses of worship. Thus government display of the Ten Commandments violates a fundamental tenet of American life, one that has given us more religious liberty than any people in world history.
- The Supreme Court and lower courts have settled the issue. In 1980's Stone v. Graham decision, the high court struck down a Kentucky law that required public schools to post the Ten Commandments. Lower federal courts have struck down the display of the Decalogue at government buildings as well. Public schools or local governments that exhibit the Ten Commandments are inviting a lawsuit they are almost certain to lose. Government officials should not squander taxpayer dollars on futile litigation.
- America is religiously diverse. The United States is home to nearly 2,000 different religions, traditions, denominations and sects. While many of these groups revere the Ten Commandments, many do not. If government officials put up the Decalogue, will they also post the Five Pillars of Islam, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the Wiccan Rede and the Affirmations of Humanism? Government should never play favorites when it comes to religion.
- Religion doesn't need government's help to promote the Ten Commandments. For a few thousands years, the leaders of Judaism and Christianity have been doing a pretty good job of getting the word out about the Ten Commandments. Interjecting the state in the picture will only mess up a good thing.
- There is no "standard version" of the Ten Commandments. Different religions and denominations list the commandments in different order and use different language. When government agencies and public schools post one version and not others, they are taking sides in a (sometimes contentious) theological debate. That simply is not government's job.
- The Ten Commandments are not a "secular" moral code that everyone can agree on. Indeed, four of the Ten Commandments are specifically religious in nature. People have fought and died because they disagreed over what constitutes a "false god" or over the meaning of the ban on worshipping a "graven image." Read any history of Europe if you want to see how bad things can get when government decides to take sides in debates like these.
- The Ten Commandments are not a magic charm that can make all of society's problems vanish overnight. Some Religious Right groups and politicians treat the commandments as though they are a lucky rabbit's foot — post them on the wall and all of society's ills will disappear! This is simplistic thinking — and it distracts us from the hard work of solving thorny social problems.
- The Ten Commandments are open to different interpretations. One commandment reads, "Thou shall not kill." Or is that "Thou shall not murder"? The language and meaning depends on what version of the Bible you read and your faith's understanding of it. If it's the former, does that really mean all killing, even in self defense? Elsewhere we are admonished to keep holy the Sabbath — but is that Friday, Saturday or Sunday? Religious leaders differ on these questions. They — not government bureaucrats — are best suited to interpret the commandments for their individual congregants.
- Politicians and interest groups are exploiting the Ten Commandments for political gain. Let's face it, many politicians and special interest groups seem ready these days to use religious symbols and religious language to win elections. Do we really want sanctimonious, poll-obsessed politicians — many of whom don't impose the Ten Commandments on themselves — imposing them on us?
- The Religious Right's use of the Ten Commandments borders on blasphemy. Religious Right groups like the Christian Coalition and the FRC use the Ten Commandments to advance their political agenda. They force action on symbolic resolutions and issues in the hope that politicians who oppose such displays can be defeated in the next election. People who believe the commandments are God's holy word should be appalled at this cynical manipulation of a religious document.
So, to any government official who is tempted to "Hang Ten" at the Family Research Council's urging, we advise a little research into basic American principles. And remember, Americans United has litigated several of these case before —and won them all.
In short, there's a big wave up ahead that will probably knock the Family Research Council's "Hang Ten" scheme right out of the water. It's called the Constitution.