Keep the Ten Commandments out of the courtroom, Judge Moore

January 06, 1998|By Steven Lubet

JUDGE ROY Moore, of Etowah County, Ala., received the Christian Statesman of the Year award not long ago at a Washington ceremony attended by 21 members of Congress.

The provincial jurist was honored for his steadfast determination to keep a hand-carved plaque of the Ten Commandments hanging on his courtroom wall, though ordered by another court to remove the display.

This phenomenon is hardly limited to Alabama. Although a Los Angeles businessman was refused permission to post the Ten Commandments along the fence of the Downey High School baseball field, Decalogue plaques have lately been mounted in public buildings in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, with others promised or promoted in Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere. The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution endorsing the display of the Ten Commandments in every public schoolroom and courtroom in the nation.

A religious question

Yet all of this enthusiasm begs one extremely important, though previously unnoticed, constitutional question: Which Ten Commandments? There are at least three distinct iterations of ,, the Ten Commandments. And the one you display depends very much on how you worship.

To be sure, Christians and Jews all accept the same text of Exodus 20: 1-17, where the commandments first appear in the Bible. But that chapter actually contains 17 separate verses, so boiling them down to 10 distinct, plaque-sized commandments requires some considerable abbreviation and interpretation. Consequently, the choice of a specific text or organization inevitably denotes a preference for one tradition over others, creating significant religious, political and constitutional issues.

In Judaism, the First Commandment is traditionally, ''I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.'' Unlike Jews, Christians generally regard this statement as a prologue, and not part of the commandments proper. It is therefore usually omitted from their one-page or wall-sized versions of the Ten Commandments. Because of that elision, the Jewish second commandment The framers of our Constitution were deeply concerned about the perils of religious conflict. They wisely recognized that entanglement of religion and government could only lead to heightened strife.

(''You shall have no other Gods before me'') more or less becomes the Christian first, with the necessary numerical adjustments continuing down the line.

The Christian formats themselves diverge almost immediately. In many Protestant renditions, the second commandment is, ''You shall not make for yourself a carved image . . . you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.'' This prohibition against ''graven images'' also is included in the Jewish second commandment, but it is not included in standard Roman Catholic condensations of the Decalogue.

And here is where the trouble lies. I am no church historian, so I do not know why the Catholic arrangement omits ''graven images'' from the shortened, one-page versions of the Ten Commandments. A quick trip to the library, however, turned up one nastily intolerant polemicist who claims that the Roman Catholic church intentionally publishes ''a mutilated set of commandments due to their worship and adoration of saints.'' Thus, the different rendering of the Ten Commandments is used as ammunition in a classic religious assault.

This example manifestly demonstrates how interpretational differences can be employed to fan the fires of religious conflict.

The framers of our Constitution were deeply concerned about the perils of religious conflict. They wisely recognized that entanglement of religion and government could only lead to heightened strife, should the followers of different faiths contend with one another for official government endorsement.

The framers agreed, therefore, that there should be ''no law respecting an establishment of religion.'' Their goal was not to suppress religion, but rather to free it from the temptations of secular power. Since there can be no law respecting an establishment of religion, no group can attempt to dominate JTC another and no faith community needs to fear political domination.

The framers' solution was both judicious and prescient. Even displaying the Ten Commandments on a courtroom wall turns out to be freighted with contentious theological significance, and therefore with the potential for exclusion, insult and distress.

Centuries-old differences between Catholics and Protestants can be played out in the passages of their respective presentations of the Ten Commandments. We have the First Amendment precisely to prevent such purely doctrinal differences from spilling over into political disputes.

Steven Lubet is a professor of law at Northwestern University. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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