Government displays of Ten Commandments continue to stir constitutional debates

Tuesday, September 22, 1998

Local lawmakers nationwide continue to pass resolutions urging the placement of religious codes and symbols in various public buildings. Such votes, however, are often protested by residents who argue that the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state is being flouted.

While one Ten Commandments controversy remains mired in a local court in Charleston, S.C., two others are brewing in Tennessee.

Last year, three South Carolina residents, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sued the Charleston County Council. The residents objected to the council's passage of the resolution authorizing the display of the Ten Commandments in the council's chambers. Tim Scott, a member of the council, said the display was needed to remind residents of moral absolutes.

A state court judge issued a preliminary injunction against posting of the commandments in the council's chambers, but has yet to rule on whether the council should be permanently barred from doing so.

Sam Howell, the county attorney, sent a letter to the judge last week saying the council will never post the commandments in the chambers, but may post the religious code elsewhere in the courthouse. Howell cited an advisory opinion issued last month by South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon as backing the council's position. Condon wrote that placement of the Ten Commandments in public buildings is “not necessarily illegal.” According to Condon the commandments can be displayed by government if the purpose is not to endorse religion.

Ayesha Khan, litigation counsel for Americans United, said that the council's announcement does not bring the controversy or her clients' case to a close. Khan said the residents still want the court to issue a permanent injunction against the council and declare the posting of the Ten Commandments in the county building a violation of the separation of church and state.

“There is a long history of the Supreme Court vociferously stating that government can't endorse religion in general or a particular religion,” Khan said. “The action by the Charleston councilmen excludes minorities from the political process. This is why we have the establishment clause, to check majoritarianism impulses to drown out minority voices.”

Two northeastern counties in Tennessee have recently become embroiled in controversies surrounding public display of the religious code.

Yesterday, the Sullivan County Commission unanimously passed a resolution calling for the display of the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and Ten Commandments in the county courthouse. The resolution states that the commission “embraces the foundation on which it and the United States were founded; and our foundation is supported by three key historical documents which should be publicly displayed as a reminder to elected officials and the citizens; and we must preserve our heritage for future generations by acknowledging and recognizing such documents.”

According to Sullivan County Commissioner Mike Gonce, the resolution also reflected the county commission's desire to support neighboring Washington County, which has received requests to remove a Ten Commandments plaque which has been displayed in the courthouse for at least 75 years. In August, the state chapter of American Atheists threatened a lawsuit against Washington County.

After yesterday's vote, Gonce said, “Sullivan County doesn't [lie] down for atheists.” He said the county commission's action stood for “moral integrity.”

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that she had contacted the American Atheists chapter and residents in Sullivan and Washington counties regarding the resolutions.

“Clearly, it is the right of individuals to post the Ten Commandments in their homes, churches or synagogues, and private businesses,” Weinberg said. “The Ten Commandments, however, should not and indeed cannot be displayed as religious text on government property. It is our contention that the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Our concern is that government should not be involved in promoting or proselytizing particular religious beliefs.”

Weinberg said her organization was taking steps to ensure that the religious liberty of everyone in the counties is protected. She said that the statements of the Sullivan County commissioners showed that the real reason for the resolution was to promote a majoritarian religion.

Sullivan County Commissioner Gary Mayes told the Kingsport Time-News that he was a “Ten Commandment man.”

“I don't always obey them like I should, but I'm working on it,” Mayes continued. “I want them in the courthouse.”

Weinberg scoffed at arguments made by some proponents that the Ten Commandants may be displayed in government buildings because most citizens supposedly accepted them.

“The beauty of the Bill of Rights is that it says minorities have certain inalienable rights – one of which bars government from promoting religious beliefs,” Weinberg said. She added that protecting individuals against the tyranny of the majority is what the Bill of Rights is all about.

Like lawmakers in South Carolina, some in Tennessee have suggested that if the Ten Commandments were placed alongside other historical documents, such as the Bill of Rights, no constitutional violation would exist.

Gonce said that because the Sullivan County Commission voted to place the Ten Commandments in the courthouse with other documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, that the vote would be constitutional.

“We are in the business of preserving pieces of what this country was founded upon,” Gonce said. “An overwhelming majority of residents are surprised that some of these documents aren't already in our county building. Display of such documents stimulates tranquillity and American pride.”

Weinberg said the text of the Ten Commandments belies the argument that placing them in a historical context would cure constitutional infirmities.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky law that required the posting of the Ten Commandments in all public school classrooms. The high court noted in Stone v. Graham that the 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 court continued: “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.”