U.S. House should honor the First Amendment this July 4

Sunday, July 4, 1999

In honor of Independence Day, here's a modest proposal for the U.S. House of Representatives: Instead of telling schools to post the Ten Commandments, why not require the posting of the First Amendment in government buildings — starting with the halls of Congress? Highlight the section that prohibits government from establishing religion.

A careful reading of the First Amendment — and a review of past court decisions — might have prevented the recent vote by the House giving states the right to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings, including schools.

The vote may have been politically popular (who dares vote against the Ten Commandments?), but it's a serious assault on the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment.

Rep. Robert Aderholt, the lead House sponsor of the 'Ten Commandments Defense Act,' claims that putting the commandments on classroom walls won't violate the First Amendment because it doesn't 'establish any one religion.' Besides, he argues, the U.S. Constitution 'contains references to God.'
Wrong on both counts.

As Mr. Aderholt surely knows, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 19 years ago that requiring schools to post the Ten Commandments violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. In that case, and in many others, the court has held that the government must be neutral among religions — and between religion and non-religion.

Inviting states and schools to violate the court's rulings may be politically popular — but it's irresponsible and divisive.

The House majority attempts to get around the First Amendment by claiming that posting the Ten Commandments promotes morality — and not religion. But the court explicitly rejected that argument, noting that the Ten Commandments are first and foremost a sacred text, believed by Jews and Christians to be the word of God.

House members should also recall that God isn't mentioned in the Constitution. That's not because the Framers were irreligious. On the contrary, most were deeply religious people. It's because they wanted to end centuries of conflict and bloodshed caused by state entanglement with religion.

True, religious references are present in many public buildings (and even on our money). But for states to post the Ten Commandments goes beyond references to a Supreme Being. It would amount to state appropriation of sacred scripture for secular purposes. For the government to instruct citizens — especially public-school students — on their religious obligations is to do exactly what the Framers most feared.

House members take note. The text of the Constitution contains only two references to religion: Article VI, prohibiting any 'religious test' for office, and the First Amendment religious-liberty clauses, prohibiting government establishment of religion and protecting the religious freedom of all citizens.

No doubt members of Congress — like most Americans — are deeply and sincerely concerned about violence and immorality, especially among the young. But symbolic (and unconstitutional) gestures aren't the answer.
What can we do? Here are three initiatives that directly address the problem without eroding our constitutional rights:

  1. Make comprehensive character education a core mission of all public schools. Core moral values can and should be taught in every classroom — without either invoking religious authority or undermining the religious convictions of parents and students.
  2. Ensure more teaching about religion — including the Ten Commandments — in history, literature and wherever appropriate in the curriculum. The Ten Commandments can and should be in classrooms as part of a curriculum that exposes students to the significant religious roots of our civilization and the major religious ideas in our culture.
  3. Promote religious-liberty policies in all school districts that protect the right of students to express their faith in school, form religious clubs in secondary schools, and bring their scriptures to school.

These are measures that we can all support. They bring the Ten Commandments into the schools — but keep the government from interfering in matters of faith.

Let's hope that the Senate rejects the 'Ten Commandments Defense Act.' In America, religious communities are already free to promote and defend the word of God. Instead, Congress should pass a 'First Amendment Defense Resolution,' promising to do everything possible to uphold our extraordinary experiment in religious liberty for all.