Decalogue on School Walls

It's hard to argue with the idea that America's schoolchildren would benefit from understanding the principles of right and wrong capsulized in the Ten Commandments.

But must this religious teaching be posted on schoolhouse walls?

Indiana's legislature just passed a law to do just that, and nine other states are weighing similar action. Such actions are part of a broad search for ways to curb violence and other problems in schools since the murders in Littleton, Colo. But are lawmakers ready to argue against the constitutional ban on the establishment of religion by government?

Universal as most of them are, the Commandments are sacred writings for Judaism and Christianity. The first one, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," may not suit - and may even offend - students of other faiths, such as a polytheistic Hindu.

The constitutional ban is designed to make government sensitive to that diversity of faiths, as well as to avoid the potential abuse of one religion dominating the affairs of state. To use another biblical idea: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's....

In Indiana, lawmakers try to get around this by saying the Commandments have to be "part of an exhibit displaying other documents of historical significance" to the America government. But the Decalogue, though certainly historical, is explicitly religious in content and purpose. The Declaration of Independence uses religious terms but is clearly civil and political in purpose. Hence the constitutional problems will remain.

Posting moral precepts works well and is appropriate in churches or Sunday Schools. In those settings the texts are enlarged, discussed, and pondered, as they should be.

Public schools, by contrast, are, and should remain, secular institutions. The Commandments are not going to become the basis for instruction. To post them where they can't be taught and more deeply understood - where kids might view them as just so many words - could devalue them.

This doesn't exclude moral concepts and rules from schools. Literature and social studies should provide many opportunities to wrestle with moral issues, and teachers should encourage such discussion. Students may sometimes touch on religious teachings as they discuss and write; that shouldn't be ruled out.

It's true that the Bible is the basis for much of Western thought. But not all Western thought is Bible-based, and the Bible's teachings have become infused naturally into daily life.

Moreover, every time an educator stops a fight or reminds students to do their own work, moral standards are set. Many schools have peer mediation that teaches how to resolve problems through moral suasion.

There should be a place in public classrooms for thoughtful wrestling with questions of right and wrong. But putting the Commandments on a wall won't make up for an absence of that deeper probing at school, or at home.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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