The Ten Commandments Aren’t Religious!

A year or two ago while discussing Judge Roy Moore and his 10 Commandments monument, one of my co-workers asked “Why shouldn’t the 10 Commandments be displayed in a courthouse? What’s wrong with it?” I answered “Because it advances one religion over all the others in this country.” She then asked: “What religion does it represent?”

After I picked my chin up off the floor I answered “The Christian religion. The 10 Commandments are Bible passages.” She looked confused and left. She didn’t want to start an argument. Neither did I.

“Of course, the Ten Commandments are religious,” Chief Justice Rehnquist said; some supporters of displaying the Commandments had tried to argue to the court that the monuments should essentially be regarded as codes of secular law. The chief justice said that in addition to their religious significance, “the Ten Commandments have an undeniable historical meaning.” He added, “Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause.” (Source: New York Times, June 28, 2005)

Rehnquist’s remarks are very puzzling. I would think that religious content would be considered, well, religious content. Not so, Texas successfully argued in the Brief for Respondents in Van Orden v. Perry:
“Thus the reasonable observer, knowing the context of the specific and deliberate location of the Ten Commandments monument on a line between the Capitol and the Supreme Court, would rightly perceive that it is the civic aspect of the Ten Commandments’ contributions to legal history and development that is being singled out and acknowledged. . . . The monument does not rely exclusively on its context to negate any possible message of religious endorsement; its design also highlights the Ten Commandments’ civic significance.”

According to Law professor John Eidsmoe, one of Judge Roy Moore’s advisors:
“‘Our position is that the Ten Commandments are not, strictly speaking, a religious document,’ said Eidsmoe. ‘They are a legal code, they are a civil and criminal code, and they are a moral code that applied to Israel and have been foundational for other societies.’ (Source:

Judge Rhenquist is correct, the Ten Commandments are religious. Mr. Eidsmoe is being a great deal less than honest. The Ten Commandments are not the foundation of US laws. Only three of the commandments–killing, stealing and lying–are dealt with in US law. Those three nasties are forbidden by every society from the Kalahari Bushmen to Red China. They are hardly unique to the Ten Commandments. Three of them are good advice: respect your parents, don’t commit adultery, don’t covet. The first four Commandments, though, are utterly contradicted by the First Amendment: No other Gods, no swearing, no graven images, keeping the Sabbath holy. Your freedom to pick your God, say what you please, carve what you please and do whatever you please on Sunday is guaranteed by the First Amendment.

That’s the problem. It’s too much personal freedom. That is why the Christian Right wishes to con the public into believing the Ten Commandments have anything to do with the US legal system. Personal freedom is not their goal, and they don’t like to be contradicted, even by implication. They have every intention of destroying the First Amendment and replacing it with that “secular” document we used to think of as Exodus 20:1-17.

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