It is 2013. Am I stupid or just blindly optimistic for being surprised that a US public school has the Ten Commandments up everywhere?
Because there is such a school. Until May 15 of this year, which is 2013, they had the Ten Commandments posted in multiple places throughout the building. This is a public high school in Muldrow, Oklahoma, by the way, and you can read more about it here.
But, basically, they were threatened with a lawsuit after an anonymous student filed a complaint. The school relented, because I guess that they were aware that they were clearly in flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Members of the community complained that this was somehow persecution. The usual stuff that comes up with these things. Let me just clarify a few things:
The Ten Commandments are an integral part of religious doctrine for most Jews and Christians. They are found in the Torah (the first five books of what Christianity refers to as the Old Testament). These religious laws were, according to the narrative in Exodus, passed down to the Isrealites through Moses by their God, Yahweh.
The US government and its institutions cannot endorse any particular religion or establish an official religion. Which means that posting a set of religious laws is Unconstitutional. These laws are not only decidedly religious in origin, but they actively exclude American citizens of other faiths.
Let’s just break these things down:
1 – “You shall have no other gods before me.” This is, quite possibly, the most offensive and non-secular law within the Decalogue. It makes sense as a law within the Abrahamic faiths—it does not make sense as something in a public school where a student who, privately or publicly, is not a part of that faith will have to see it (outside of the context of someone’s school project or actual religious scholarship) hanging on the wall. In particular, many people within the US and elsewhere on the globe, are polytheists. We are exactly the sorts of people and are members of exactly the sort of faiths that the First Commandment is opposing. This should never be displayed on a public building in a way that suggests that I am unwelcome in the country of my birth.
2 – The second one is a little wordy. But this is the one about no graven images—no idols. Well, a lot of faiths use idols in their religious practices and many adherents possess these images out of devotion. A lot of overlap with the first one as to why this is offensive.
3 – Don’t take the name of the Abrahamic God in vain. That’s a specific restriction on members of that religion. Irrelevant to everyone else.
4 – This one is about the Sabbath. Not working on the Sabbath. Not bound by that restriction. I have done a great deal of work on both Saturday and Sunday, including going to my place of employment, homework, housework, yardwork, writing. Another specific restriction for the Judeo-Christian community.
5 – “Honor your father and your mother.” Well, not everyone has parents worth honoring. My father happens to be an awful person. While this one is not always good advice and while it is religious in origin, this one is not nearly as offensive as the first two.
6 – “Do not murder.” Well, yeah. Even if you believe that some people absolutely need killing, US law (and most laws) outlaw killing people under most circumstances.
7 – “Do not commit adultery.” Ridiculous. Even if interpreted by a narrow interpretation (“if you’re married, be monoamorous”), no government institution has a right to tell you anything of the sort. More widely interpreted, it’s a statement against not only extramarital sex, but premarital sex. Aww hell naw.
8 – “Do not steal.” Agreed! Inappropriate on a school’s wall because it, you know, is a religious doctrine, but in a vacuum, I have no problem with this rule.
9 – This one is about bearing false witness against your neighbor. I’m fine with this rule.
10 – The tenth one is really weird. This is the one about coveting your neighbor’s “possessions” (including livestock, servants, and wife—who does not seem to count as a neighbor). This one draws more of a “what the hell” response than the kind of moral outrage that some of the earlier ones elicit. (Though I should note that some people interpret this as a law against “mental crimes” of envy, while it is also argued that the original translation makes this a law against theft—specifically from your neighbor, which seems a little redundant with number eight)
The Ten Commandments are not and can never be secular symbols. They are not and can never be anything but a set of religious laws for a set of religious adherents. Hanging them up throughout the year (again, as opposed to displaying them as a part of a student’s classwork, such as a report on Judaism or Christianity or something along those lines) is absolutely an endorsement of particular religions over others. Unacceptable for any religion—mine included.
I think that it is fair to speculate that many of the people protesting the removal of the Ten Commandments would also protest the installation of, say, religious laws from the Qur’an. They would also protest a sign that began with “There is no God.”
Those two examples are how the Ten Commandments look to the rest of us.