Politics of the Commandments

Posting the Decalogue in public places becomes a top cause for

From yard signs to classroom bulletin boards, courtroom walls to coffee mugs, the Ten Commandments are experiencing a very public revival.

Posting the Mosaic law in prominent places, especially schools, is emerging as the new clarion call of Christian conservatives. But the movement is gaining adherents from the ranks of judges, teachers, parents, and politicians who, confronted by school violence and a perceived moral decline in the United States, hope the Decalogue will be chiseled into young minds as it once was chiseled into stone.

On the political agenda of the religious right, the issue has surpassed prayer in schools, the teaching of creationism, and perhaps even abortion.

"This is now the litmus test," says Frank Flinn, professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, who tracks efforts to display the Ten Commandments.

Every step of the way, the movement is met by defenders of the separation between church and state. The ensuing clashes - in courts, statehouses, and even Congress - spring from disagreement over how much separation is enough and what place religious codes should have in civic spaces.

Although the US Supreme Court has ruled against posting the Ten Commandments in schools, saying it amounts to government promotion of religion, the matter is unsettled in the public mind.

In a poll by Gallup, CNN, and USA Today last June, 74 percent of adults said they support letting schools display the Ten Commandments. Perhaps some took their cue from the House of Representatives, which a week before the survey approved such a measure as part of a juvenile-justice bill.

While the juvenile-justice bill stalled in the Senate, many localities saw the House vote as a green light for public display of the Ten Commandments. Since then, postings - at schools from Ohio to Tennessee - have multiplied dramatically.

The movement has spread beyond the so-called Bible belt, into states such as Minnesota and California. But ground zero may be Kentucky, origin of the 1980 US Supreme Court ruling that disallowed a state law authorizing schools to post the Ten Commandments.

In some parts of Kentucky, though, posters and placards may have simply stayed up, despite the ruling. But after receiving complaints from a number of citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit recently against three counties. One has copies of the Ten Commandments in its school classrooms; the other two have framed prints on courthouse walls.

"It was very apparent to us that the purpose of those postings and the way they were posted was to have government promote religion," says Jeff Vessels of the ACLU of Kentucky in Louisville.

The argument of the ACLU and others is not that the Ten Commandments should be banned altogether. A number of schools, in fact, have avoided lawsuits by incorporating the code into diverse displays of historical and religious documents - so that the emphasis is on teaching about these subjects rather than the merits of believing in them. In Altoona, Pa., for instance, a school library displays the Decalogue along with other religious documents and hosts an after-school Ten Commandments club.

"These are difficult theological and ethical constructs," says the Rev. Barry Lynn of the Washington-based Americans for Separation of Church and State, who is also a minister of the United Church of Christ. "We're not trying to inflame people. We're just trying to have everybody recognize that in a country with 2,000 religions, we've got to be sensitive to the spiritual beliefs of all of them."

But rather than incorporate information about a variety of religions into their lesson plans, many schools have tried to avoid the subject altogether, says Professor Flinn.

That dearth of discussion on religion may be one reason the grass-roots commandments movement seems so strong. It has given rise to things such as "National T-Day," when people use the November anniversary of the high court's 1980 ruling to sport Ten Commandments T-shirts.

Displaying the Ten Commandments, say supporters, does not endorse a particular religion, but simply gives recognition to something integral to America's values.

"To say that God exists in the founding documents but that He doesn't have a set of rules ... creates a sort of cultural schizophrenia for our kids," says Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council in Washington, which promotes public display of the Ten Commandments via less controversial avenues, such as book covers. "Columbine, Paducah, Jonesboro, remind us that evil ... can only be countered with good. Isn't it a good idea to tell our kids, 'Don't kill, don't lie, don't cheat?' " she says.

But the ACLU's Mr. Vessels says that approach is "simplistic" and "misguided." Allowing for the whole range of religious views is what has made America strong, he says. "We haven't seen [religious strife] here in a long time because we have a clear separation between church and state."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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