Take Two Tablets: A Shavuot Prescription for Displaying the Decalogue

May 16, 2014Barbara Weinstein

Have you seen the Ten Commandments lately? Not the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster, but the Decalogue: the biblical guidelines Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai and a cause for Jewish celebration each year on Shavuot.

For a while, it seemed the Ten Commandments were everywhere, or at least discussion about them was. Some suggested the morals of public school children would be improved by placing the Commandments in every classroom. In the early 2000s, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore installed a two-and-a-half ton granite Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of his state's Supreme Court. (It was later removed by court order and Moore was removed from his position by a unanimous action of the Alabama Court of the Judiciary.) Even today, visitors to the U.S. Supreme Court can see a depiction of the tablets in part of the artwork that graces the Court itself. (More on that later.)

The Ten Commandments are a cornerstone of the Jewish and Christian faiths, although Jews, Catholics and Protestants have slightly differing versions. In each though, the Commandments remind us of the standards of behavior that allow us to be the best versions of ourselves in our relationships with each other and with God. And because of the special value the Commandments hold across the Judeo-Christian tradition, we teach and display them in our synagogues and churches, in our religious schools, and in our homes.

Growing up in Canada, a country that celebrates religious as well as cultural diversity but does not have a strict separation of church and state, I saw the Ten Commandments frequently: hanging on the wall in my progressive Jewish day school, posted prominently in my Catholic college - both of which, though private and religiously-affiliated institutions, received direct government funding.

But in the U.S, displaying the Ten Commandments on public property raises tricky questions about the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of separation of church and state. Does displaying the Commandments on state property constitute an endorsement of religion? The answer is: it depends. The Supreme Court said in 2005's Van Orden v. Perry that displays of the Commandments as part of larger representations regarding symbols and history of law (like in the Supreme Court building itself where a frieze depicts the great law-givers of history including Moses holding the Ten Commandments) are acceptable in public spaces. But that same day the Court ruled in McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky that religious depictions of the Commandments on public grounds where the intent or the effect is to endorse religion are NOT constitutional.

As a Movement, we believe that ensuring that the U.S. government does not endorse religion over non-religion or favor one religion or religious tradition has allowed religion to flourish singularly in America. We made that clear in 1965, when the then-UAHC adopted a resolution asserting that "the principle of separation of church and state is best for both church and state and is indispensable for the preservation of that spirit of religious liberty which is a unique blessing of American democracy."

Yes, millions of Americans subscribe to faiths that cherish the Ten Commandments, but many others do not. By choosing one specific wording of the Ten Commandments over that used by other religions, state-endorsed religious displays of the Ten Commandments signal preference for some faiths over others. Such practices belie the diversity of belief upon which the U.S. was founded. And to assert, as some do, that the Commandments are simply a reflection of secular values of good behavior is to strip them of their religious significance. That should be anathema to all people of faith.

As we celebrate Shavuot and the blessing of receiving the Torah, let us celebrate as well the blessing of religious freedom that allows all people to live out the highest teachings of their faith each and every day.

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