Religion and politics, Kentucky style, part 2

The Kentucky Senate yesterday passed, with a sole dissenting vote, a bill to restore a Ten Commandments monument to the Capitol grounds and to permit the display of religious texts in “historical” displays on public property. It seems likely to pass the state House and be signed by Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

So Kentucky will once again be pushing the envelope of the meaning of the separation of church and state. Earlier displays of the Commandments had been ruled as unconstitutional by none other than the U.S. Supreme Court. While the local ACLU chapter has not threatened legal action, preferring to wait and see what the displays look like, I expect someone will (and should) challenge the law.

So does Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, D-Lexington, the only dissenting vote among the 38 senators. “Our track record in Kentucky is not very good with passing bills on the Ten Commandments that withstand judicial scrutiny,” he told the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The monument will recognize the state’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage, according to Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville.

That’s a telling remark, as it is clear that the senators have some sort of religious intent in erecting the monument and allowing similar displays in other public buildings, like schools and libraries. If a court does later hear a challenge to the law, the court will likely want to know the motivation of the state assembly in passing the law.

A religious motivation would probably scotch the whole deal. It’s happened before.

The supporters of the bill, however, are also careful to couch the bill’s language to refer to the Commandments as an example of a “historical” document or display. One presumes from that word, historical, that the Commandments will be displayed alongside other significant influences on the U.S. legal system. I doubt it will be, but perhaps the senators are smarter than I think they are.

While the Decalogue clearly influenced the Founding Fathers, it is just one foundation of our form of government and our legal system. Roman law, which developed separately from Judaic law, formed the basis of most European legal systems. Greek democracy included principles that are echoed in our democratic system. British legal history, particularly the rise of Parliament’s governmental influence, played a part as well.

Then there are the essays of John Locke and Thomas Paine, which synthesized many anti-monarchical. pro-republican themes present in the 17th and 18th centuries.

If the state honestly wants to include the Commandments in any “historical” display, then, it will have to include documents like the Magna Carta, the Code of Hammurabi, the code of Justinian, the essays of Locke and Paine, the political theories of Plato and Aristotle, the Declaration of Independence, the Article of Confederacy and the U.S. Constitution, among others. These are to a large extent secular documents.

If, however, the supporters intend to hammer home the concept that Kentucky is a “Judeo-Christian” state, then the Commandments might be the only qualifying document, other than perhaps the Sermon on the Mount. The Commandments clearly carry a religious theme and are clearly not secular. There, I predict, will be the rub.

Here is the text in Exodus containing the Decalogue (I have added the numbers):

(1) Do not have any other gods before Me. (2) Do not represent [such] gods by any carved statue or picture of anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or in the water below the land. Do not bow down to [such gods] or worship them. I am God your Lord, a God who demands exclusive worship. Where My enemies are concerned, I keep in mind the sin of the fathers for [their] descendants, to the third and fourth [generation]. But for those who love Me and keep My commandments, I show love for thousands [of generations]. (3) Do not take the name of God your Lord in vain. God will not allow the one who takes His name in vain to go unpunished. (4) Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. You can work during the six weekdays and do all your tasks. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God your Lord. Do not do anything that constitutes work. [This includes] you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maid, your animal, and the foreigner in your gates. It was during the six weekdays that God made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. God therefore blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (5) Honor your father and mother. You will then live long on the land that God your Lord is giving you. (6) Do not commit murder. (7) Do not commit adultery. (8)Do not steal. (9) Do not testify as a false witness against your neighbor. (10) Do not be envious of your neighbor’s house. Do not be envious of your neighbor’s wife, his slave, his maid, his ox, his donkey, or anything else that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20)

Now, how many of these commandments have secular applications? Only the last six. Most right-thinking people would accept these six as useful rules to live by, regardless of their religious background. Similar restrictions abound in other cultures, and in common and civil law, so it’s a bit of a stretch to claim the Founding Fathers had just these six in mind when they constructed the USA.

The first four pertain only to the people of the Book (Jews, Christian and Muslims). Atheists, pagans, Hundus, among other groups, would not find commandments 1 through 4 as particularly pertinent to their lives (although having at least one day off from work a week is a really great idea!). These then have virtually no secular applications, at least in a nation that abides by the First Amendment.

Displaying the Ten Commandments by themselves, then, has no place in a pluralistic society. Yet I believe that is exactly the intent of our state’s leaders, to declare Kentucky part of a great “Christian nation,”a debatable point from many different angles.

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