The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case last week on the constitutionality of displaying the Ten Commandments in government buildings. After decades of refusing to make a decisive ruling about the role of religion in public life, the Court has the opportunity to set a clear precedent.
The case was argued by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a Texas plaintiff who claims that the states of Texas and Kentucky are violating the First Amendment by displaying the Ten Commandments on state Capitol grounds and county courthouses. Though the Supreme Court has now heard the case, it is unlikely that it will be resolute in its ruling, instead issuing a minimalist ruling with less potential to make political waves.
Though the Supreme Court is theoretically an apolitical branch of government, the cases it chooses to hear and the rulings it makes are inevitably affected by politics. Many of the Court’s most notorious and hotly disputed rulings were made in times when the nation was highly polarized, as it is today. Because minimalist rulings that seek to determine constitutionality on a case-by-case basis, especially in the name of preserving a precarious political balance, are difficult to interpret and nearly impossible to enforce, the Supreme Court should use this opportunity to set a clear precedent over the role of religion in public institutions.
Social conservatives argue that the Ten Commandments hold historic as well as religious importance, asserting that they have a place in government buildings because the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian values. However, upon looking at the Constitution, it is evident that displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings, especially in courthouses, is a blatant violation of the First Amendment. Because the Commandments relate specifically to Christian and Judaic religious traditions, their display in public buildings translates to government endorsement of these faiths over all others. This clearly infringes upon the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which mandates the separation of church and state.
The Ten Commandments are inherently religious, and the argument that the commandments — which are the foundation of the Judeo-Christian faith — are secular is clearly fallacious. The first commandment is explicitly religious, asserting that the Judeo-Christian God is the only god. Even the historical record of the Ten Commandments comes almost wholly from religious texts.
The Supreme Court should reject dubious arguments that the Ten Commandments are secular in nature and issue a broad ruling that makes perfectly clear that religion and government must not mix. Those who share the opinions of Justice Antonin Scalia, who said the Ten Commandments are, “a symbol of the fact that the government derives its authority from God,” must not be allowed to erode the vital separation of church and state the founders of this nation enshrined into law. While Scalia may feel that our government draws its powers from a higher being, it is worth remembering the words of the Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed.” The display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings is an affront to the very tenets of our Republic and must be halted.