Hang Ten?

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken April 7, 2002

The law of God has a way of offending people. People like Sally Flynn, for example. Ms. Flynn is the 72 year-old atheist who recently filed suit against Chester County, seeking to have the Ten Commandments removed from the county courthouse.

The Ten Commandments have been hanging on the courthouse since before Sally Flynn was born—81 years, to be exact. But Flynn thought it was time for the bronze plaque to come down. In a federal case called Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia v. Chester County, she alleged that posting the Ten Commandments on a government building violated the U. S. Constitution. In her view, the plaque was an attempt to promote Christianity as the state religion, and thus contradicted the First Amendment. “Society knows about not murdering and not stealing,” Flynn said, “But the rest of it there promotes a belief in God.”

Flynn's suit was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and by leaders from various religions. An imam testified that Muslims do not believe in the Ten Commandments. A rabbi said this particular plaque was offensive to Jews because God's special divine name was transliterated from Hebrew into English. Others argued that the first commandment (“You shall have no other gods before me;” Exod. 20:3) was offensive to Hindus and Buddhists because they believe in more than one deity.

In countering these arguments, Chester County officials appealed to the fact that the plaque has been in place for almost a century. To take it down now, they argued, would send the wrong message. The government is supposed to remain neutral where religion is concerned, but removing the Ten Commandments would show hostility rather than neutrality. The county also argued that although the Ten Commandments have a religious origin, they now have a “purely secular purpose.” They have become so common in our society, that they have lost their distinctively religious meaning. So posting them does not establish religion in any unconstitutional way.

The case was tried before U. S. District Court Judge Stuart Dalzell, who wasted little time in reaching his verdict. The day after closing arguments he ordered the county to take down the Ten Commandments. He wrote, “The only plaque on the courthouse façade with any substantive content is the Ten Commandment tablet… . [T]he tablet's necessary effect on those who see it is to endorse or advance the unique importance of this predominantly religious text for mainline Protestantism.” And according to Mr. Dalzell at least, that makes it unconstitutional.

This verdict misunderstands the context in which our Constitution was written. The point of the establishment clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) was not to remove any mention of religion from public life, but to prevent the federal government from interfering with religion at the local level. The fact is that at the time the Constitution was written, religion was already well established. Most states required Christian oaths not only for public officials, but also for citizens. Laws closely tied to the Ten Commandments, such as regulations governing blasphemy and the Sabbath, were common. To our founding fathers, the idea that posting the Ten Commandments might be unconstitutional would have seemed laughable. Yet now we are told that they pose a threat to religious freedom.

Chester County is likely to appeal Judge Dalzell's decision. In the meantime, the commissioners are trying to find a way to keep their plaque. They have offered to erect additional tablets commemorating the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and other historic documents. Making the Ten Commandments part of a larger tableau would emphasize their secular purpose.

This concession ought to be unnecessary, but it is in keeping with the county's argument that the Ten Commandments are secular, not religious. Was this a good argument to make? Not from the legal standpoint, because the tablet was originally posted for an explicitly religious purpose. It was donated by the Council of Religious Education of the Federated Churches of West Chester to promote biblical teaching. Furthermore, in addition to the Ten Commandments, it also included the Two Great Commandments from the New Testament: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Matt. 22:37); and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). For the county to argue that such a plaque was not religious was to invite ridicule.

Nor was the county's argument valid from the religious standpoint. The law of God, as summarized in the Ten Commandments, has three primary uses. One is to restrain evil and promote virtue in civil society. This is its secular purpose, which the county was right to mention. Another use of the law is to expose our sin. The more we learn what God requires, the clearer it becomes that we are unable to do what he demands. This reveals our need for Jesus Christ. Once we come to Christ, the third use of the law is to show us how to live in a way that is pleasing to God.

So although the Ten Commandments do have a secular purpose, they are inherently religious. By promoting the worship of only one God, by rejecting idolatry, and by regulating a weekly Sabbath, they promote biblical religion. It would have been wiser to admit this from the outset—certainly from the theological standpoint, and possibly also from the legal standpoint. Of course the Ten Commandments have a religious purpose! They always have, and they always will. But that does not prevent them from also having a secular benefit, and it does not make posting them unconstitutional.

Since we value the Ten Commandments and believe they have a salutary role to play in civic life, we can only lament their removal from the Chester County Courthouse. And we can only hope that the verdict will be overturned. Like the signers of the Declaration of Independence, we appeal “to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions.”

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