It looks like we are heading for another important decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in two cases this week about government use of the ten commandments.
I know we have been over this before, and talked about it from many angles, but this time it looks like the decision may hinge on what constitutes a *historical display of a religious document or text *vs. a promotion of a religious view. It also requires consideration of “ceremonial deism” as to what is acceptable. That narrows the topic a bit.
Let me begin by assuming what I think most of us can agree on. There is a spectrum of acts from mere historical display to religious promotion. I will say that historical display is OK, religious promotion is not. Examples:
ACCEPTABLE: A diorama in a government lobby depicting the development of government and law and including, in roughly equal proportions, such images as a generic tribal council meeting, Moses given the tablets, the Code of Hammurabi, the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, images of the English Parliament, New England town meetings, voting scenes, legislative scenes, women’s suffrage icons, Lincoln’s “Union” texts, you get the idea. At first glance, I have little problem with the inclusion of the ten commandments in this context. It would pass the Lemon test: It has a secular purpose, it does not advance religion, and it does not entangle government with religion.
(Aside: BUT I wonder just how much of a factor the 10s were in the USA’s founding fathers’ works & actions. Did they write essays with the 10s at their side, treating it as if God insisted they be followed, or were they merely present at the back of their minds as a rough guide?)
I’m not concerned here with such matters as which version of the commandments, how many (10 or 12), or whether they make any sense or are followed today. In a historical context, it only matters that SOME version of them were influences – among many – in establishing a government or deriving a set of laws. And the argument that a Buddha statue or Hare Khrishna text should have equal stature is not relevant here, since AFAIK neither had a profound influence in the early development of Western law or government.
NOT ACCEPTABLE: A large, imposing statue in a lobby, where it is impossible to ignore, of the ten commandments presented in such a way as to admonish, if not directly order, citizens to follow them on severe penalty of outcast or punishment, and implying that the courts are enforcing a divine revelation. This would fail the Lemon test in all three ways: It does not have a secular purpose, it advances a specific religion (Judeo/Christian at least), and it entangles government with religion. Badly.
OK, so now we agree on the limits, both ends of the spectrum. Where do we draw the line?
It is disturbing to me that the religious right seems determined to force the issue by deliberately merging sacred displays with secular ones, then daring SCOTUS to do something about it. I find the cries of “it’s part of our heritage” disingenuous when I see ministers protesting outside SCOTUS. Do they really expect us to believe that, to them, the ten commandments are NOT a religous document? And if they are not, why is it so important to them to keep the 10s in a mixed-media display? Would ministers be as upset if the Magna Carta were removed from the same display?
And here’s a What If: Assume that the 10s were truly a profound influence in the original U.S. government design. What if by 300 years later, perhaps thru immigration, this country becomes 70% Shinto. Will Shinto “priests” be lobbying for statues of a Hebrew document in every courthouse?
So where do we draw the line so this doesn’t keep coming up again? Is there a better test than Lemon?