The Ten Commandments: Legal, if they’re not religious

Why the courts said ‘no’ to religious symbols

When the word came down, said Charles Lane in The Washington Post, evangelicals wept and bowed in prayer. Civil libertarians celebrated and waved placards. Both sides claimed victories, yet both were disappointed. In conflicting rulings, a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court this week weighed in on one of the hottest flash points in the nation's culture wars: the Ten Commandments. By a 5–4 vote, the court allowed a 6-foot granite monument of the Commandments to remain standing on the grounds of the Texas Capitol. But by the same margin, the justices said that gold-framed copies of Moses' laws inside two Kentucky courthouses amounted to 'œa state endorsement of religion'—and thus violated the First Amendment.

In the end, said Joan Biskupic in USA Today, the court found that context and intent are critical. The Texas tablets were donated in 1961 by a private civic group. Since then, they've been joined by 37 other symbols representing the history of Western civilization, including two Stars of David, an eagle grasping an American flag, and an eye inside a pyramid. The net effect of this tableau, the justices found, 'œwas not religious.' By contrast, the Kentucky legislators who hung the Commandments in McCreary County courthouses in 1999 had openly announced their desire to promote respect for Judeo-Christian values. That, said the justices, crossed the line into endorsement of a specific faith.

In other words, said John Podhoretz in the New York Post, public displays of religious symbols are fine if they're not…religious. What kind of 'œwitless' reasoning is that? Taken together, these two decisions are 'œnonsense on stilts.' They're also proof that President Bush needs to fill future Supreme Court vacancies with true conservatives, said The Washington Times in an editorial. The current court, dominated by liberal secularists, has taken yet another step 'œtoward the banishing of religion from the public square.' As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his dissent, the majority's insistence that the Ten Commandments be displayed merely as historical documents is an affront to this country's Judeo-Christian heritage, and 'œratchets up this court's hostility to religion.'

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Your complaint is with the Founders, not this court, said John Nichols in The Nation. Having seen the violence and discrimination sectarian differences wrought in Europe, the authors of the Constitution deliberately created a wall between church and state. The court's decisions affirm that pandering politicians can't use the Commandments, 'œor any other statement of religious principle, as a battering ram' against that constitutional wall. It's a pity, though, that the court permitted the Texas tablets to stand, said The New York Times in an editorial. That was clearly a concession to the religious right, which is clamoring for government endorsement of the 'œmajority' religion—that is, Christianity. But as the country 'œgrows more religiously diverse,' the court's attempt at compromise may actually backfire, creating 'œmore religious strife, not less.'

George Will

The Washington Post

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