Panelists debate proper public place for Thou Shalt, Thou Shalt Nots

Monday, September 13, 1999

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A state judge, a religious-liberty scholar, an evangelical minister and a Jewish civil rights advocate debated whether the Ten Commandments should be posted in public schools and other buildings today.

The group formed the First Amendment Center’s “The Ten Commandment’s in Public Places” panel on the Vanderbilt University campus. The discussion comes at a time when U.S. lawmakers are similarly debating a bill declaring that the religious codes can be displayed in all public buildings.

Rev. Robert Sch...
Rev. Robert Schenck

More than 100 attendees heard the panelists touch on possible effects of posting the Ten Commandments in public schools and on whether the Supreme Court had correctly interpreted the First Amendment to mean that government cannot sponsor posting of the codes.

The Rev. Robert Schenck, founder of the National Clergy Council and a project calling for the enthusiastic display of the Christian-Judeo codes in public schools and other buildings, was asked by John Seigenthaler, the First Amendment Center’s founder, what the effect of posting the codes in the public schools could be.

“Religious convictions can’t and should not be subject to a whim,” Schenck said. “The greatest contribution to posting the Ten Commandments is to remind us that morality is absolute and that we are subject to higher morality than ourselves.”

Schenck said he did not believe that posting the religious codes would immediately solve social ills, such as school violence and drug abuse, but that posting the codes would in “some part” help lessen violence in the public schools.

Charles Haynes...
Charles Haynes

According to Schenck, the “two greatest contributions to our moral sensibilities are Judaism and Christianity, and we should not be ashamed to say that.”

However, Charles Haynes, the First Amendment Center’s senior scholar, noted deep theological differences among Christians regarding the Ten Commandments, as well as differing versions in Christian and Jewish traditions.

Elizabeth Coleman, an Anti-Defamation League director, said she would not want a Jewish version of the Ten Commandments posted in any public school. Moreover, she said that posting the religious codes was a “simplistic solution” to complex societal issues.

Elizabeth Colem...
Elizabeth Coleman

Pointing to the “In God We Trust” motto on American currency, Schenck said that government posting of Ten Commandments should not be treated differently by the federal courts.

“Every president, except I believe one, has sworn an oath to God and Congress opens its sessions with prayer given by a clergy member,” Schenck said. “We are a God-honoring country and we agree on that. We honor and acknowledge God and I believe there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Ten Commandments. They are non-offensive documents, so let’s put them (up) and only the rare atheist will be offended.”

Not all Protestants, however, agree on the importance or the legitimacy of the Ten Commandments.

Despite Schenck’s insistence that the Ten Commandments are revered and adhered to throughout Christianity and Judaism, John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., recently wrote that careful study of the Ten Commandments “reveals nothing less than the tribal prejudices, stereotypes, and limited knowledge of the people who created them.” Spong also wrote that a portion of the Ten Commandments “treats human beings as if they are property,” and should “be pronounced immoral at once and forthwith abandoned.”

Alabama Circuit Judge Charles Price said Schenck’s equating of government acknowledgments of God with government-sponsored posting of the Ten Commandments was flawed. Price ruled two years ago that Roy Moore, another Alabama judge, unconstitutionally displayed the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.

John Seigenthal...
John Seigenthaler and Charles Price.

Price said politicians were not compelled to be in Congress, unlike students who are under most state laws compelled to get an education. “The distinction centers on government taking a religion and enforcing it on others,” he said.

Haynes also said that although the Supreme Court had not struck down government acknowledgments of a deity, the act of government sponsorship of religious codes, believed by many to be the actual words of a theistic God, remains far different.

“Anyone with deeply held religious convictions should be concerned about government co-opting and using their religious beliefs,” Haynes said. “Today, government may benignly call for posting of the Ten Commandments, but tomorrow may ask if we are living up to them.”

Citing Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and the colony’s first governor, Haynes said that when government uses religion or co-opts a certain religion’s messages, either hypocrisy or bloodshed will follow.

“The use of sacred texts for government purposes is blasphemy and violates the constitutional protections for liberty of conscience,” he said.

In June the House of Representatives passed an expansive juvenile-justice bill containing a declaration that state governments have the authority to post the Ten Commandments in all public buildings, including schools. The Senate’s version of the bill does not include the statement. The bill is pending in conference committee.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled in Stone v. Graham that the Ten Commandments could only be seen as a sacred text that could not be constitutionally endorsed or sponsored by government officials.