Congressman introduces law to permit government display of religious codes

Wednesday, July 8, 1998

An Alabama congressman with support of members in both chambers has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to permit the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings.

The bill, called the Ten Commandments Defense Act, would accomplish some of the same goals as the Religious Freedom Amendment introduced last year by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., by making government displays of religious beliefs constitutional. Istook's amendment was defeated last month in the House.

The act introduced by Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., states in part that the “organic laws of the United States Code and the constitution of every state, using various expressions, recognize God as the source of the blessings of liberty,” and therefore the “power to display the Ten Commandments on or within property owned or administered by the several States or political subdivisions thereof is hereby declared to be among the powers reserved to the States.” The bill is pending consideration in the House Judiciary Committee.

In April, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., introduced a resolution calling on the nation's public officials to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings. The resolution, adopted unanimously, states: “The Ten Commandments set forth a code of moral conduct, observance of which is acknowledged to promote respect for our system of laws and the good of society.” The senator's resolution mirrored one the House adopted a year ago.

Aderholt, like Sessions, has responded to attempts by state officials in Alabama to force a state court judge to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom. Judge Roy Moore displays a hand-carved plaque of the religious do's and don'ts in his Etowah County courtroom and allows a Christian minister to pray aloud before each court session.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued Moore last year, alleging his actions violated the separation of church and state. A state judge agreed and ordered Moore to remove the display and cease the giving of Christian prayers. On a technicality, however, the state's Supreme Court threw the decision out of court, thus allowing Moore to continue displaying the moral codes.

Other proponents of the act and resolutions supporting official display of the Ten Commandments argue the nation's well-being hinges in part on governmental approval and promotion of the commandments.

“The problems we face in America are moral problems, which cannot be solved legislatively or judicially,” said Robert Schenck, founder of the National Clergy Council, which advocates government display of the commandments. “We need a moral code to address them. There is no better educational and moral code than the Ten Commandments.”

Elliot Mincberg, legal director of the D.C.-based People for the American Way, a civil rights organization, called Aderholt's bill “troubling,” and in some aspects an attempted “end-run” around the defeat of Istook's amendment.

“I think the bill is based on a constitutional misconception,” Mincberg said. “The bill says it is legal per se for government officials to post the Ten Commandments in every situation. That is not the case, though. If government officials post the commandments to promote or endorse religion, then the Constitution prohibits that.”

Additionally, Mincberg said the bill was ambiguous and could be construed to suggest government could promote all kinds of religious beliefs.

A section of the bill states that the “expression of religious faith by individual persons on or within property owned or administered by the several states or political subdivisions thereof is hereby declared to be among the rights secured against laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion made or enforced by the United States Government or by any department or executive or judicial officer.”

Mincberg said “it would be unusual for this thing to go forward without any hearings on exactly what it means. Part of the bill seems to be immunizing the posting of the Ten Commandments in all circumstances from constitutional challenges.”

Supporters of the act argue government entities can post the Ten Commandments without giving the appearance of promoting or advancing religious doctrine.

Arne Owens, director of communications for the Christian Coalition, dubbed arguments that the act subverts the separation of church and state as “standard rhetoric from those attempting to limit and restrict religious expression in this country.”

“The Ten Commandments have their basis in Jewish law, thus the law won't advance Christianity, it simply represents the Judeo-Christian heritage of this country,” Owens said. “It is very troublesome that today the liberal establishment does not accept public religious expression of any sort.”

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a Kentucky law that mandated the posting of the Ten Commandments in all public school classrooms.

The court in Stone v. Graham concluded the law violated church-state separation and that Kentucky lawmakers had no secular purpose for creating the law other than promoting religious beliefs.

“The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature,” the majority of the court noted. “The Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one's parents, killing or murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness. Rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord's name in vain, and observing the Sabbath Day.”