In 2001, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore arranged for a 5,500-pound Ten Commandments monument to be installed in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building. The monument – on state land, in a state building – sent a clear message to anyone entering the building that having the right kind of religion might affect justice. It also sent a message to many people that they were not welcome in the Alabama Supreme Court. The monument clearly violated the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from taking a position on religion – what we call the Separation of Church and State.
Three of the four gubernatorial candidates in Georgia are on record as wanting to follow Moore’s lead, forcing the state to spend a small fortune to build a monument, only to have the courts force the state to take it down. Why would Georgia want to repeat this history?
I was the chief expert witness in a lawsuit brought to remove Alabama’s monument. Chief Justice Moore argued that the Ten Commandments are “the moral foundation of American law,” and thus this was a “historical monument.” In my testimony, I showed that most of the commandments have little or nothing to do with American law. What kind of law would require that you “honor your father and your mother”? Since the Ten Commandments come from the Old Testament, does the requirement that we “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” prohibit Saturday football games? Or even Sunday football games?
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.