Senate: Thou ought to display the Ten Commandments

Thursday, April 9, 1998

The U.S. Senate has adopted a resolution encouraging the nation's public officials to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings.

The Senate's resolution unanimously adopted late Thursday is similar to one passed by the House a year ago.

The resolution states, in part: “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 public display, including the display in the Supreme Court, the Capitol building, the White House, and other government offices and courthouses across the nation, of the Ten Commandments should be permitted as long as it is consistent with the establishment clause of the first amendment of the United States Constitution.”

The resolution was introduced by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and intended to commend Alabama state court Judge Roy Moore for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.

“We've got to end the hostility toward the display of the Ten Commandments in public places,” Sessions said. “There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits a display like Judge Roy Moore's in Etowah County, Alabama. The founding of our great nation was based on principles in the Ten Commandments. We must embrace these ideals as a way to restore our country's greatness.”

Moore's religious proclivities are showcased in his courtroom where he displays the Ten Commandments and encourages prayer. Those actions were challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama in 1995 as a violation of the separation of church and state.

Before a court could rule on the ACLU's challenge, however, Alabama Gov. Fob James filed a countersuit in the court of Montgomery Circuit Judge Charles Price, asking him to declare Moore's actions constitutional.

Price, however, ordered Moore to cease permitting prayer and to hang other, secular items on his walls along with the Ten Commandments.

Price's order has been nullified by the state's Supreme Court, which ruled early this year that the governor did not have legal standing to plead on Moore's behalf that he be permitted to keep religious displays in his courtroom.

Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that Session's resolution is “slap in the face” to fundamental principles of religious liberty.

“Why are politicians wasting our time with junk like this?” Boston asked. “If lawmakers have nothing better to do than pass meaningless resolutions then they should just go home.”

Boston said the Republican majority continues to receive complaints from conservative religious groups that it is ignoring their agenda, and some of the leaders believe a resolution like Sessions' will help mute the criticism.

“I'm not sure, however, that by passing meaningless symbolic gestures they will satisfy many of the religious-right groups,” he said. “I think it might actually make them angrier.”

A senior attorney for the American Center for Law and Justice, a national legal and educational organization dedicated to a conservative Christian agenda, says that the Senate resolution while appreciated fails to take any substantive action.

“It looks a lot like we are being thrown a bone,” Jim Henderson said. “This is not a binding resolution. We are still waiting to see tuition credits, vouchers, an abatement of a variety of restrictions on funding for sectarian purposes and pro-life legislation. The sentiment the resolution expresses is appreciated, but we hope for more substance from this Congress.”

While the Ten Commandments received approval in the Senate, the moral codes were treated with less reverence by a California state judge who upheld a decision barring their display at a public high school's baseball field.

Norwalk Superior Court Judge Thomas I. McKnew Jr. on Friday dismissed a lawsuit by a local businessman, who had accused the Downey Unified School District of subverting his rights of free speech and religion. The businessman sued the school district after officials refused to let him purchase advertising space on the high school's baseball field fence to display the Ten Commandments.

McKnew agreed with school officials that the presence of the religious message would run afoul of the separation of church and state. The businessman's attorney has vowed to appeal the decision.