Shall we post the penalties too?, The

10 Commandments and public schools: Shall we post the penalties too?, The

Rabinove, Samuel

Some conservative politicians advocate posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. They believe this would reinforce the good kids and somehow make the bad kids more moral. As if posting the Commandments in classrooms would have deterred the two young lunatics who committed the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado.

The Ten Commandments, of course, are Hebrew biblical law, God’s holy word, sacred to Christians as well as Jews. It should be borne in mind, though, that different faiths list the Commandments in different order and use different translations. There is no “standard version.” Certainly the Bible takes the Commandments very seriously, as reflected in the penalties it prescribes for disobeying them. Yet nobody seems anxious to teach children what the penalties were.

The Hebrew Commandments and the punishments for those who transgress them, were as follows:

* I Am The Lord Thy God. This Commandment recognized the sovereignty of the Almighty. Rejection of it was seen as a refusal to acknowledge God’s authority. Punishment was death by stoning.

* Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods But Me. Punishment was death by stoning.

* Thou Shalt Not Take The Name Of The Lord Thy God In Vain. Punishment was death by stoning.

* Remember The Sabbath Day To Keep It Holy. Punishment was death by stoning.

* Honor Thy Father And Thy Mother Punishment was death by strangulation.

* Thou Shalt Not Commit Murder Punishment was death by decapitation.

* Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery. Punishment was death by strangulation.

* Thou Shalt Not Steal. Punishment was death by strangulation.

* Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor Punishment was death by stoning.

* Thou Shalt Not Covet. Punishment was death by strangulation.

These punishments were quite simply barbaric. Although attributed to God, they actually reflected the beliefs of primitive people. Early on, the Talmudic authorities tried mightily to interpret the biblical law as narrowly as possible. They made legal restrictions so numerous that it became almost impossible to impose a death sentence.

Today, of course, things are quite different. Pope John Paul II opposes capital punishment under any circumstances. Most clergy – Catholic, Protestant and Jewish – agree with him. Israel has no death penalty, except for the crime of genocide.

In 1980, the United States Supreme Court prohibited hanging the Ten Commandments in public schools, in line with its other rulings barring the promotion of any religion in public schools.

In a per curiam opinion in Stone v. Graham, the court majority held, “The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments is undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one’s parents, killing or murder. Rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord’s name in vain, and observing the sabbath day.”

Thus, the Commandments are clearly deemed religious, and children should not be given the mistaken impression that they are simply part of American law. They most certainly are not. For example, almost all Americans believe in one God, but no law makes this mandatory. Sabbath observance is entirely voluntary, as indeed it should be. Some parents do not deserve to be honored, and no law requires that they be honored.

What can and should be taught in public schools? A broad array of civic values that are shared by people of all faiths and none: honesty, decency, discipline, responsibility, sportsmanship, civility, courtesy, love of country and respect for the rights and freedoms of other people. Those are not easy to teach. But there is nothing unconstitutional about trying. It surely can be done more effectively than is currently the case.

New York Tmes columnist Maureen Dowd recently said that before we consider hanging the Ten Commandments in public schools, we should first consider hanging them in the halls of Congress and the White House, where one or more of them are broken every day.

Another observation that is pertinent was made some time ago by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-111.). He said, “I took an oath on the Bible to uphold the Constitution. I didn’t take an oath on the Constitution to uphold the Bible.”

Also germane is a cartoon that once appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It showed a stone tablet that had apparently been hurled down from heaven. On it was the “11th Commandment,” which was, “Thou Shalt not use the Lord thy God like unto a Political Football.”

In the cartoon, a voice from above announced, “Got it?”

Samuel Rabinove is a member of the Committee on Religious Liberty of the National Council of Churches and a former member of the Americans United National Advisory Council. He points out that the views expressed here are his own.

Copyright Americans United for Separation of Church and State Nov 2000

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