The display the Ten Commandments in public places has generated a lot of controversy in the recent years. The display of these commandments was not controversial until the emergence of lawsuits by groups of citizens and civil liberties in the past few decades. The controversy lies in the constitutionality of the matter and if the display infringes the rights of the citizens (Sorauf, 2015). The opponents argue that the Ten Commandments (and other religious symbols) should be removed from public places because they violate the requirements of the First Amendment. Indeed, these controversies have risen through every religious-based holiday season including the public placement of Christmas trees, nativity scenes and Hanukkah menorahs. The Constitutions, through the First Amendment, prohibits the establishment of a state religion (Hamburger, 2009). This essay analyzes the controversy from both perspectives.
Religion is a significant topic of interest in the contemporary American society. The immigration coupled with the adaptation to the needs of an ever-changing population has made religion to be dynamic, vigorous and widespread. America, with a strong Christian background, is one of the global nations that eschew a state religion. The rise of Atheism and Agonists has made the topic to be more heated in the previous years. There have been numerous controversies surrounding the use of religious symbols (such as the Ten Commandments) in governmental buildings, public places, and even courthouses. Additionally, the controversy has grown over to some traditions such as the Pledge of Allegiance, where these groups want the words “under God” to be removed (Sorauf, 2015). The primary argument is that the government seems to favor one religion over the other when they are displayed on the public property.
The display of the Ten Commandments on public property as a debate may seem to be new, but the idea of the separation of the church from the state has been as old as the Constitution. In the initial Constitution, the Framers avoided the creation of religious superiority. It may have been noted that nearly all the framers were Christians or at least deists (Miller, 2012). However, the differences in their Christian backgrounds generated similar religious diversity as those experienced by the modern-day America. The disagreement in the methods of worship of the Christian Sects can be equated to the disagreements in doctrines in the modern religions. As a result, they formulated Article 6 to deny any religious tests from determining if an individual is suitable for an office (Miller, 2012; Sorauf, 2015). Additionally, they tried to create a constitution that created religious freedom and liberty. The first amendment was introduced later to ensure that religion is voluntary for all American citizens.
The First Amendment is the part of the constitution that protects the citizens from the government-imposed religion. The framers noted that the recognition of one religion or sect as supreme over the other might lead to oppression and persecution. The Amendment prevents the development of a national religion and additionally prohibits the federal government from helping any religion even on a non-preferential basis (Miller, 2012). Additionally, the citizens have the right to select their religion (or not) without any governmental obligations. Nevertheless, the states were not bounded by these rules, and some decided to form their own State Churches as a rule only applied to the federal government.
The requirements of the First Amendment have not prevented the use of religious symbols in public places over the years. One of the contributing factors to this apparent despising of the constitution is the fact that more than 90% of Americans are deists (Sorauf, 2015). Therefore, the Christian culture has often remained a percussive influence over the American policy, culture and public policy. The case of Judge Roy Moore (The Ten Commandments judge) illustrates how the Christian backgrounds inadvertently get themselves into public policy. The judge, who was sued by ACLU for displaying a wooden Ten Commandments in his courtroom, would go on to build a monument of the Commandments in the Supreme Court when he was elected the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. His case resulted in much controversy but later led to his dismissal and the removal of the monument from the court.
The display of the Ten Commandments can be seen as a direct violation of the Establishment Clause. The display shows that the government is favoring the Christian faith over the other beliefs in the country. Therefore, it makes the other citizens from non-Christian faiths to think that they are not favored in the political community. It becomes an indirect means of the government’s advancing or inhibiting religion, which consequently results in the violation of religious liberty (Hoo, 2004; Scherer, 2013). It creates a structural concern for the freedom and liberty that is protected by the Constitution when the government funds or uses its power to advance Christianity by allowing the display of the Ten Commandments. The state of Texas’s display of a monument capturing the Ten Commandments does not have a purported correlation with the role of God in the formation of the state or the founding of the nation. It also does not give a reasonable observer a basis upon which they can intimate that it was erected in honor of any organization or individual. The message passed by across by the display chosen by Texas is quite simple; the state endorses the Judeo-Christian God’s divine code. At the very least, the Establishment clause creates a formidable presumption against displaying religious symbols within public properties.
The biggest challenge in establishing if the display of the government is illegal has been their role in the history of America. Therefore, the display of the Ten Commandments may be argued to be of historical significance when posted with other secular and related materials of the manner. In such a way, it would appear as religious hostility if the courts decide to remove these commandments from being displayed. It, therefore, becomes challenging to establish the boundary between the secular use of the Ten Commandments and their religious use (Hoo, 2004). If an individual can show that the use of the Ten Commandments in public places was purely for secular purposes, then it becomes challenging to use the Establishment clause against such a claim.
The primary argument for erecting the Ten Commandments monuments at public places is that they represent the history of the country and were used in the formulation of the law. True to the word, three of the provisions in the Ten Commandments provide the basic principles that were used to establish the law. As these sets of commandments are divided into two parts, the first part illustrates the service of man to God while the other is the service of man to other men. Therefore, the second part can be shown to have influenced the formulation of the law either directly or indirectly. Stealing, killing, defamation and perjuring are the fundamental principles in the American (and most other countries) legal system (Green, 2000). However, trying to give a secular impression to the Ten Commandments serves to dilute the purpose of the first part of these laws, which is equally important.
The First Amendment’s first provision is ascribed to freedom of religion. The guarantee is a reflection of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom ascribed to Thomas Jefferson, which intimates that no entity ought to suffer for their religious beliefs or opinions, but that every person ought to be free to express and via argument, to maintain any opinion they have in light of religion. This assurance is quite relevant in this case as liberal elites attempt to drive religious believers and beliefs way from public squares. It is emergent that every individual has a right to express their religious virtues to public policy without the removal of their religious symbols. The First Amendment’s framers and the Founding Fathers did not intend for the government to take a hostile stance towards religion. The separation of the state and the church ascribed to the First Amendment intended only to highlight the government’s neutrality amongst denominations that appear to be in competition, not permanently enshrine the oviposition of the government toward the expression of faith or religion within public spaces. Posting the Ten Commandments in public potentially helps the populace to recall the Founders voices intimating that morality and religion are the two pillars that uphold the populace’s freedom.
The Ten Commandments documents have also been equated with other historically significant documents such as the Magna Carta, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence. These other documents have not received any controversy and have actually been hailed for their historical significance. The analysis of the Declaration of Independence shows that the founders of the nation recognized the significance of a higher authority in establishing the laws of the land (Scherer, 2013). The presence of the Ten Commandments in any place, therefore, reminds people of the law. The significance can also be seen in the courtroom where the right frieze of lawyers has the depiction of Moses holding the two tablets. Therefore, it is impossible to rule out the significance of the Ten Commandments from the history of America and the formulation of its laws.
In matters that are controversial, citizens have often turned to the courts to shed light on their legality. The US Supreme Court delved into the case of the display of the Ten Commandments in a classroom about 25 years back in the case of Graham v. Stone. In this particular case, the court struck a statute in Kentucky that necessitated the Ten Commandment’s posting in every public school’s classrooms. The court reversed decision made by the Supreme of Kentucky and intimated that this statute was in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause since it did not have a secular purpose. Nonetheless, the rulings on the display of the Ten Commandments have continued to generate more controversy rather than solutions. Over the years, the courts have arrived at different conclusions on the suitability of the Ten Commandments in public places even in cases that seem similar on the first look (Scherer, 2013). Therefore, it has become challenging to decipher if it is against the Constitution or not. A recent example is the Oklahoma ruling where the Supreme Court found that the display of the Ten Commandments in the public places was illegal and ordered the removal of the monument (Hallowell, 2015). The defendant had claimed that he had erected the statute to show the children in the future where the rules in the Constitution had come from and how the Ten Commandments have historical significance.
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In conclusion, the public display of the Ten Commandments in governmental or public places has continued to create controversy in the recent years. The inconsistent rulings of the courts have further fueled the debate. The opponents of the displays believe that it limits their religious liberties and freedoms, and violates the protections granted by the First Amendment. The history of the Constitution shows a desire of the framers to have a complete separation of the government from religious endorsement and prohibition. Therefore, allowing the display of the Ten Commandments shows the preferential endorsement of one religion over the others, which violates the Constitution. On the other hand, the proponents believe that the Ten Commandments hold significant historical importance to the country’s formulation of the laws. Therefore, the Ten Commandments should be treated with similar magnitudes of respect accorded to other historical documents such as the Magna Carta, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence.
- Green, S. K. (2000). The Fount of Everything Just and Right? The Ten Commandments as a Source of American Law. Journal of Law and Religion, 14(02), 525-558.
- Hallowell, B. (2015, September 30). Gov’t Officials Vote to Remove Ten Commandments Monument from Oklahoma Capitol Grounds After ACLU Battle. The Blaze.
- Hamburger, P. (2009). Separation of church and state. Harvard University Press.
- Hoo, C. L. (2004). Thou Shalt Not Publicly Display the Ten Commandments: A Call for a Reevaluation of Current Establishment Clause Jurisprudence. Penn St. L. Rev., 109, 683.
- Miller, N. P. (2012). The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State. OUP USA.
- Scherer, M. (2013). Beyond Church and State: Democracy, Secularism, and Conversion. Cambridge University Press.
- Sorauf, F. J. (2015). The wall of separation: The constitutional politics of church and state. Princeton University Press.