Religious code not the basis of our laws

Recently, the Georgia House backed legislation that would permit displays focused on the Ten Commandments (with other documents added in mainly for their religious language) at government buildings, including public schools.

The purpose of such displays is not to educate. It’s to make a political statement that religion and government should be joined at the hip. Such displays do a disservice to our residents. By elevating the Ten Commandments as the font of all law, we ignore the rich sources that have contributed to the nation’s legal foundation. The Ten Commandments are undoubtedly important to many Christians and Jews. They are not the basis of American law.

In a 2003 dispute over a Commandments display in Alabama, 41 law professors and legal historians filed a brief debunking the idea that U.S. law springs from the Ten Commandments.

They noted “various documents and texts” figured in the development of American law, among them English common and statutory law, Roman law and the civil law of continental Europe.

A simple reading of the Ten Commandments bears this out. Our laws do not punish people for worshipping “false” gods or for failing to honor the Sabbath.

Of course, actions such as murder, theft and lying are punished, but these prohibitions have existed as long as people have sought to live together. They are commonsense rules that belong to no particular faith.

The proposal in Georgia will likely spark lawsuits. The Supreme Court long ago struck down Commandments displays in public schools. Several counties that have displayed the religious code in courthouses have been sued.

Two Kentucky counties that insisted on displaying the Ten Commandments were sued and lost in court. These counties, in impoverished areas, had to pay legal bills of nearly a half-million dollars. It’s irresponsible to prod local governments to adopt a policy that’s likely to get them sued, that forces them to squander scarce taxpayer dollars.

There are at least three versions of the Commandments, worded differently. They list the commandments in different order. Which version will become Georgia’s “state-approved” code?

Believers are free to venerate the Ten Commandments in homes, churches and other private property in Georgia and all over America. Posting them in government buildings may win political points for legislators. It does nothing to advance real faith in America.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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