Monday, February 28, 2005

Ten Commandments on Trial

This is a snippet from a NYT article abut the upcoming Supreme Court hearing issues on the display of the Ten Commandments in governmental buildings. Anyone who regularly reads my blog knows my feelings on this issue - we should not (links to past posts here and here)

The article says:

At the same event, Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm established by the Rev. Pat Robertson that litigates for evangelicals and other religious communities, offered a different perspective. The Ten Commandments have acquired secular as well as religious meaning, he said, and have come to be "uniquely symbolic of law."

Mr. Sekulow noted that the marble frieze in the courtroom of the Supreme Court Building itself depicts Moses, holding the tablets, in a procession of "great lawgivers of history." (The 17 other figures in the frieze include Hammurabi, Confucius, Justinian, Napoleon, Chief Justice John Marshall and Muhammad, who holds the Koran.) "Does the Supreme Court now issue an opinion that requires a sandblaster to come in? I think not," Mr. Sekulow said.

The Bush administration, which has filed briefs urging the justices to uphold the displays in both cases, takes the same approach, calling the Ten Commandments "a uniquely potent and commonly recognized symbol of the law."

The problem with that rationale, that it is only historical, is a farce. While the supreme court has Moses with the Ten Commandments in a long line of other historical laws, it does so in a historical sense, and without particular deference to Judeo-Christian faith over any other, over even to religious law over secular law. I have not yet heard of a case involving the Ten Commandments being ordered out of a courtroom, while leaving Mohammad or Hammurabi's law (which is the origin of much of the Ten Commandments).

It is quite obvious that Judge Moore, former Alabama State Court Justice, had no intention of displaying the commandments in a historical sense, or with any other form of law that has had an impact on Western Law. He publically stated it was because of religious convictions. If they were serious about this line of reasoning, why are they not also pushing for other religious as well as secular law origins? I have no problem with using the Ten Commandments as an educational tool. But, this is anything but educational.

1 comment:

Boomr said...

The Ten Commandments have by no means "acquired secular meaning." Each one is either strictly religious, or was a societal structure in place long before the commandments were handed down.

The very first commandment is "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." How is this in any way a secular statement? Likewise the second, dealing with "graven images" of things in heaven. Likewise the third, dealing with taking the Lord's name in vain. Likewise the fourth, dealing with keeping the sabbath holy. Likewise the tenth, dealing with "coveting" the possessions and wife of a neighbor -- it's a limitation on THOUGHT, which can only have religious implications.

The fifth, dealing with "honoring thy father and mother," has no real application to secular law, except in the stretch to analogize it to modern-day laws placing the responsibility for caring for parents in the hands of the children (of course, with express exceptions).

The sixth, "Thou shalt not kill," is a prohibition that is almost universally ignored in the secular law. Most nations of the world have some sort of justification for killing written into their laws (self defense, defense of others, heat of passion, insanity etc.), and pretty much all of the states of the world have sanctioned killing in the state's name at one point or another (through wars, executions, suppression of rebellion, etc.). It was also widely ignored by many "religious" people (Crusades, Inquisition, witch trials, abortion clinic bombings, willful ignorance of the Holocaust, etc.).

The seventh, regarding adultery, is only a matter of secular law in the most fundamentalist regimes. The most adultery can get you in the US is a poor divorce settlement -- although even now many states have "no fault" divorces where such indiscretions do not necessarily result in any losses -- or a possible impeachment proceeding.

I'll give you the eighth, "thou shalt not steal," but that's more of a universal protective statement than one of religious doctrine, and was in existence long before Judaism or Christianity were concepts. Even so, thieves violating this commandment can still be absolved of all sin according to the Catholic Church, merely by confessing.

The ninth, about bearing false witness, is likewise a matter of protection of the public that existed prior to the existence of the characters in the Bible.

Thus, you'd have to stretch the meaning behind the Ten Commandments pretty far in order to get to the "secular meaning" ascribed to them by Sekulow.

And to display them BY THEMSELVES in a secular court is clearly giving them greater importance than other religions, or than no religion at all. Again, I'll give the example of a courtroom decked out with Satanist writings -- wouldn't that make you uncomfortable?