The Commandments at the Courthouse

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken September 14, 2003

They have rolled away the stone. On August 27, a work crew jacked up the two-and-a-half ton granite monument and wheeled it out of the rotunda at the Alabama Supreme Court building. Supposedly, it is now in a safe place, although we are not quite sure where it has been stored. The only thing we know for certain is that in keeping with a federal court order, it is no longer on public display. I refer, of course, to “Roy’s Rock”–the monument set in place two years ago by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. Why did they take the rock and roll it away? Because it was engraved with the biblical text of the Ten Commandments.

Public opinion about the disposition of the monument has been sharply divided. According to the Reverend Barry Lynn, who is the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “This is a tremendous victory for the rule of law and respect for religious diversity.” The Chief Justice himself begged to differ. “It is a sad day in our country,” he said, “when the moral foundation of our laws and the acknowledgment of God has to be hidden from public view to appease a federal judge.”

The Ten Commandments were removed because, in the opinion of District Judge Myron Thompson, their presence at the courthouse violated the First Amendment’s requirement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This verdict was upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Judge Ed Carnes ruled that the monument’s primary purpose was the “endorsement or promotion of religion.”

In my own opinion–and I emphasize that this is a matter of personal opinion, not biblical principle–this is a serious misunderstanding of the United State Constitution. What the Constitution forbids is the establishment of a single religion as the law of our land. Based on the experience of Europe, the Founding Fathers rightly refused to recognize a particular religious denomination as a state or federal church. They were trying to prevent the Quakers, for example, from claiming authority over Pennsylvania, or to keep the State of Maryland from restricting the right to vote to members of the Roman Catholic Church. What they did not intend to do was to eliminate any and all reference to the Bible in public life.

What the Constitution really says about the establishment of religion was widely understood until at least the twentieth century, which is why many older public buildings still make reference to the Ten Commandments or to some other biblical truth. Americans generally regarded the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, as non-sectarian. But today there is growing hostility to God, and thus there is strong opposition to any hint of religion having an influence on the government or on public education. Ironically, the practical result is the establishment of a religion, namely, atheism.

It must be admitted that when Justice Moore decided to put the Decalogue on display at his courthouse–at night, and without informing Alabama’s other justices–he was pressing his luck. His operation gave many people the impression that he needed to act in secrecy, even though Mr. Moore has been outspoken in acknowledging the biblical basis for our system of justice. From the standpoint of legal precedent, there is of course next to no chance that he will be allowed to put his monument back. Not only that, but he has been suspended from office and now faces an ethics trial before the Alabama Judiciary for refusing to bow to the ruling of the court.

This is a shame, because it would be good to have a copy of the Ten Commandments posted at the Alabama State Judicial Building–or any other courthouse, for that matter. It would be good because the Ten Commandments provide a necessary context for the American system of justice. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence, they rightly claimed that our rights as citizens depend on the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Without these divinely given laws, there is no moral basis for the laws that govern our country. If God is not the lawgiver, then we are a law unto ourselves. And nowhere are “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” better summarized than in the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses at Mount Sinai.

Knowing the Ten Commandments would be of some help to our federal, state, and local judges. One of the purposes of God’s law–specifically the Ten Commandments–is to help us know the difference between right and wrong in public life. The law acts as a restraint on sin. The better we know it, the better we know what righteousness God requires. To some extent, putting the Ten Commandments on display would help to promote a more just society.

But posting the Ten Commandments would also do something else: it would reveal our sin. The law always this effect. It is through the law that we become aware how wicked we really are. As the Scripture says, “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Without God’s law, we would not even know what sin is. But when we read the law–whether we read it on some public monument or right out of the Bible–we immediately see that we are law-breakers. God’s law condemns us idolaters, adulterers, and yes, even murderers, in the sense that there is murderous anger in our hearts. And this is good for us to know, because it is only when we see our sin through the law that we realize how much we need a Savior in the gospel.

[Information for this Window on the World comes from Steven Lubet, “Thou shalt not be meddlesome,” Philadelphia Inquirer (August 19, 2003); Kyle Wingfield, “Commandments Monument is Removed,” Associated Press (August 28, 2003); ad Rebecca Winters, “Standoff at Roy’s Rock,” TIME (September 1, 2003), 53].

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