A win-win for people of faith
This op-ed appeared July 1 in the Miami Herald.
By: Michael Allan Wolf
Michael Allan Wolf holds the Richard E. Nelson Chair in Local Government Law at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law.
People of faith — particularly Christians and Jews — should applaud the Supreme Court for its decisions Monday in two Ten Commandments cases.
In the first decision, the five-member majority found that the posting in two Kentucky county courthouses of the commandments as part of a display of other historical documents with religious messages was unconstitutional. In the second, five justices voted to allow the continued display of a six-foot-high Ten Commandments monument, erected in 1961, in an area near the Texas State Capitol.
The first reason to commend the Supreme Court is that government officials have no business telling citizens which version of the Ten Commandments they approve.
That’s right: There are different versions of the Ten Commandments.
The version posted by Kentucky officials, though probably acceptable to most Protestants and Orthodox Christians, is not the version used by Catholics, Lutherans and Jews. The problem for Catholics and Lutherans is that the county-approved version has only one ”covet” commandment, the 10th, not two, the ninth and 10th. The problem for Jews is that the entire first commandment is left out. That commandment states: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”
Most people of faith feel a strong obligation to pass on their specific religious teachings to their children.
Do we really want to make this task more difficult by exposing our children to an ”official version” that does not match our teachings?
The second cause for the faithful to praise the justices is that many religious Christians and Jews believe that the Ten Commandments are either the words of the Creator or divinely inspired. But during the last few decades, a growing number of religious symbols has been watered down and secularized by their display in public places such as public parks, state capitols and city halls.
Are our children really supposed to believe that Christmas trees, nativity scenes and menorahs are just symbols of giving, family values and freedom? More important, are we supposed to believe that the people who push to have these and other symbols displayed in the shadow of government have no desire to promote a religious agenda?
If you believe that the answer to either of these questions is ”no,” then you should applaud the court for refusing to water down the religious meaning of the Ten Commandments in the Kentucky case.
The third reason why people of faith should be far from discouraged by the Supreme Court’s opinions is that they demonstrate how seriously our judges take the notion that it is important to balance the essential requirements of both of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.
The free-exercise clause demands that government allow religious persons to practice their faith, even, indeed especially, if their beliefs are in the minority. The establishment clause demands that we make sure that government officials do not endorse certain religious beliefs, such as the idea that the Lord delivered the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel on Mount Sinai. The sharp divisions on the court are not a symbol of stark political and ideological divisions in our society. They are instead the product of a legal system that strives for the best resolution for difficult disputes, even in the face of damning sound-bites and news headlines.
Will the fights over the Ten Commandments ever stop? Probably not as long as public officials and their religious allies continue to push the establishment-clause envelope by displaying these holy words in more-prominent public places, all the while explaining that their motivation is to explain the history of our nation and its laws.
My recommendation is that the next time you come across these people, ask them if their intent really is to tie this nation more closely to God. If their answer is ”No,” you might want to reacquaint them with the ninth (or is it eighth?) commandment.
You know — it’s the one about bearing false witness.
- Media Contact
- Aaron Hoover, firstname.lastname@example.org, 352-392-0186