I pointed out that American law is not based on religion or the Bible, but on the will of the people. As Thomas Jefferson said, governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” We elect representatives and governors to pass and implement laws, which we accept because “We the People” are the ultimate lawmakers.
Moore also argued that “everyone” believes in the Ten Commandments so it would not burden anyone’s faith to have the monument in the courthouse. Moore asserted that non-western religions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism, were not “real religions” so they were not protected by the First Amendment. This attitude did not impress the federal judge, who ordered Moore to take the monument down. When he refused, the eight other justices voted him off the court. Everyone except Moore understood that government should not be in the “religion business.”
Putting up a Ten Commandments monument is not only unconstitutional, but offensive to many religious people who actually believe in the Ten Commandments. Here’s why.
We find the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 (there is a different version in Deuteronomy 5), but they are not listed one through ten. There are numerous verses, which contain at least 17 different commandments, and all originally written in Hebrew. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews numbered and translated them differently.
So, which translation to use? The New Revised Standard Bible and Jewish Bibles translate the sixth commandment as “You shall not murder,” while the King James translation says “Thou shalt not kill.” These words have very different meanings. Similarly, the King James version says “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” while Catholic translations say: “You shall not carve idols for yourselves.” Idols are very different from “graven images.”
Thus, any Ten Commandments monument will necessarily endorse one religious tradition at the expense of all others. Everyone is free to display any version of the Ten Commandments on his or her front lawn. But the state government can’t endorse any religion with taxpayer dollars and public land.
In 2014, Georgia ignored the debacle from its neighboring state, adopting a law to put a Ten Commandments monument on the capitol grounds. Representative Stacey Abrams, currently a gubernatorial candidate, voted against this obviously unconstitutional law. Three other gubernatorial candidates—Stacey Evans, Hunter Hill and Michael Williams— supported the measure.
These legislators voted to take the state down a road that would involve public land, some public money, and ultimately litigation that would take money from education, highways, public safety and economic development to build the monument and then waste more money in a hopeless effort to defend their unconstitutional plan.
Georgia’s next governor should respect the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and protect religious freedom for all. After all, do you really want the government telling you how to pray or what Biblical text to endorse? Heaven forbid!
Paul Finkelman, Ph.D. is the President of Gratz College in greater Philadelphia. He was a professor at the University of Tulsa Law School in 2002 when he testified against Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments monument.