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The Ten Commandments Go To Trial

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The Supreme Court is going to rule whether copies of the Ten Commandments can hang in government buildings. This is the same court that’s ruled it’s OK for a girl under the age of 18 to murder a preborn baby, but it’s not OK to execute a murderer if he or she is under 18. The Court has just made anyone under 18 the most dangerous group in America. So don’t get your hopes up on this Ten Commandment case.

Even so, many Americans might be surprised to learn that the Supreme Court building has a number of depictions of the Ten Commandments and other lawgivers,[1] some of which are carved in stone, adorning prominent entry ways and displayed in the chamber where the justices sit. If our nation’s highest court can have these displays, then why not other government buildings?:

A seated Moses is shown holding the two tablets of the law as the central figure of the east pediment on the exterior of the Supreme Court building.[2]

• An image of the two tables of the Ten Commandments is engraved on the frame of the bronze gates separating the courtroom from the aisle.[3]

A marble frieze in the Chamber itself shows Moses holding a copy of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written.[4]

• Two allegorical figures, representing "The Power of Government" and "The Majesty of Government," stand beside a carved flat-faced tablet with two rows of Roman numerals, I-V and VI-X, an obvious rendering of the Ten Commandments.[5]

Carved into the bottom panel of the oak doors separating the courtroom from the hallway of the Supreme Court building is a rendering of the Ten Commandments.

As Chief Justice Warren Burger noted in his majority opinion of Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Supreme Court Chamber in which cases related to religion are heard "is decorated with a notable and permanent-not seasonal-symbol of religion: Moses with the Ten Commandments."[6] State courtrooms and government buildings across our land have housed similar displays for decades without any legal challenge. "In fact, the Ten Commandments are more easily found in America's government buildings than in her religious buildings, thus demonstrating the understanding by generations of Americans from coast to coast that the Ten Commandments formed the basis of America's civil laws."[7]

• A full-scale model of The Interpretation of Law showing Moses holding the tablets of the law is on the same floor as the Attorney General's office.[8]

• A statue of Moses holding the Ten Commandments is prominently displayed in the rotunda of the Library of Congress.

The "Liberty of Worship" statue, which is outside the Ronald Reagan Building, is shown resting on a tablet engraved with ten Roman numerals representing the Ten Commandments.

A bronze representation of the Ten
Commandments is embedded in the floor of the National Archives.

• A mural of Moses holding the two tables of the law is on the courtroom ceiling of the Supreme Court Chamber in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania contains large murals (10' X 8') depicting Moses and the Ten Commandments (the Hebrew Idea of Revealed Law), Jesus teaching the Beatitudes (the Christian Idea of Revealed Law), and Jesus Christ and Disarmament (International Law) painted by Violet Oakley and commissioned by the state of Pennsylvania and dedicated in 1927.

• In another mural, Oakley describes the meaning of "Divine Law" as the "Alpha and Omega," the first and the last, "of the law."

At the dedication ceremony of the Oakley murals, George Wharton Pepper, former United States Senator, jurist, and professor of law, offered the following comments: "It is in this room that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania will sit to determine and interpret each of these rules of life as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania can take account of. As the Judges discharge their solemn duty, I have no doubt that their delicate task will be more wisely performed because of the witness of the walls." Pepper's words indicate that the murals are more than historical representations of abstract ancient moral law. They are viewed as "rules of life." He went on to say: "When citizens coming into the open court perceive that they are really entering a sacred place it may be that they, too, will be dominated by the sense of order and will yield themselves to the spell which the artist's genius is able to lay upon them."[9]

The Constitution itself recognizes one of the most religiously specific of the Ten Commandments. In Article I, section 7 of the Constitution, Sunday--not Friday (Islam's holy day) or Saturday (Judaism's holy day)--is set aside as a day of rest for the President, a direct reference to the fourth commandment: "If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless Congress by their Adjournment prevent its return, in which Case it shall not be a Law."

The statute books of all fifty states include prohibitions against blasphemy (third), dishonoring parents (fifth), murder (sixth), adultery (seventh), theft (eighth), and perjury (ninth). The state of Georgia, like many other states, still retains legislation regarding Sunday (fourth).[10] In the Georgia General Assembly Unannotated code we find the following instructions given to the state's archivist: "Encourage the study of historical documents including but not limited to those which reflect our National Motto, the Declaration of Independence, the Ten Commandments, the Constitution of the United States, and such other nationally recognized documents which contributed to the history of the State of Georgia" (45-13-41).

So how will the Supreme Court rule? I’m not optimistic. A majority of the justices will ignore the examples cited above, and turn to the vague legal notions of international law. Will whitewash and sandblasters be brought in to remove the Ten Commandment images? To be consistent, they’ll have to be.

Endnotes:

[1] Some dismiss these displays of the Ten Commandments because they are part of a historical montage that includes other lawgivers "such as Hammurabi, Solon, Confucius and Muhammad." (David Rensberger, "Commandments force-fed," Atlanta Journal-Constitution [October 3, 2003], A19). The problem with this argument is that our legal system does not reference the Code of Hammurabi, the Koran, or the writings of Confucius.
[2] A photograph of the image appears in Fred J. Maroon, The Supreme Court of the United States (New York: Thomasson-Grant & Lickle, 1996), 50-51.
[3] A photograph of the image appears in Maroon, The Supreme Court of the United States, 141.
[4] A photograph of the image appears in Maroon, The Supreme Court of the United States, 149. It's the fifth image from the left. For a more detailed look, see Gary DeMar, America's Christian Heritage (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2003), 73.
[5] A photograph of the image appears in Maroon, The Supreme Court of the United States, 148-149. A detail of the image is found on page 149.
[6] U.S. Supreme Court Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (decided March 5, 1984), II.C.
[7] David Barton, "The Ten Commandments: A Part of America's Legal System for Almost 400 years!" Prepared and presented in response to multiple ACLU lawsuits against public displays of the Ten Commandments, United States District Court, Eastern District Court, Eastern District of Kentucky, London Division (March 2001).
[8] George Gurney, Sculpture and the Federal Triangle (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), 177.
[9] George Wharton Pepper quoted in Violet Oakley, The Holy Experiment: Our Heritage from William Penn--1644-1944 (Philadelphia: Gogslea Studio Publications, 1950), 106. Also see A Sacred Challenge: Violet Oakley and the Pennsylvania Capitol Murals (Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, 2003).
[10] "The only days to be declared, treated, and considered as religious holidays shall be the first day of each week, called Sunday" (Unannotated Code 1-4-2) and "Any superintendent, warden, or other correctional official who causes any inmate to do any work on Sunday, except works of necessity, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor" (General Assembly Unannotated Code 42-5-40).

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