I decided I’d post an entry in the blogswarm supporting the separation of church and state. It seems appropriate to do it on Easter. My blogging has risen again.
For most of my adult life I’ve lived in the south and periodically down here a state senator or congressman or judge starts a furor to get plaques of the Ten Commandments put in a civic space – government buildings or courthouses or such. I saw the episode of the Colbert Report where Representative Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, who sponsored legislation to display the commandments in the Federal House of Representatives and the Senate buildings could only name three. There was much blogosphere hooting and hollering as a follow on about how dumb this guy was, but friends, you were played. There is a reason he could only name three:
Stephen Colbert: What are the Ten Commandments?
Lynn Westmoreland: What are all of them?
LW: You want me to name them all?
LW: Ummmm. Don’t murder. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Ummmmm.
LW: I can’t name them all.
He didn’t name any more than that, because those are the only three that have any place in a government building. Like most people, my original inclination was to make fun of the dumb guy. “Hell” I said, “I can name more than that. Remember the sabbath, have no other gods … Hey!!!” When you sit and down and think about the balance of the commandments, most are actually illegal and unconstitutional to enforce. As an exercise in thoroughness of thought, lets go down the list and see the legal implications of each of the Ten Commandments and see how appropriate we think this list is for government buildings. I am using the list as distilled by Wikipedia.
- You shall have no other gods before Me
By the First Amendment to the Constitution, I am expressly permitted to have other gods than Jehovah.
- You shall not make for yourself an idol
By the First Amendment to the Constitution, I am expressly permitted to have and make graven images of other gods. I have an image of Ganesa hanging on my desktop monitor right now. That violates the 2nd commandment, but I am in compliance with United States law.
- You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God
By the First Amendment to the Constitution, I am expressly permitted to take in vain the name of Jehovah, Jesus or any other god that is holy to any other citizen. It is part of my right of free speech.
- Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
By the First Amendment to the Constitution, I am expressly permitted to keep the Sabbath as holy or unholy as I choose. I chose to go grocery shopping this morning whilst Christians were at church celebrating their dead god. There was no one in the checkout line. Thank you, 4th commandment!
- Honor your parents
While this is a good idea, there is no legal implications of it. I am permitted by American law to not honor my parents. It would make me a dick, but you couldn’t send me to jail for it unless accompanied by an action that was illegal in and of itself.
- You shall not murder
Commandment #1 that is in line with the law and also one Westmoreland mentioned.
- You shall not commit adultery
At the federal level, there is no legal implication of this commandment. Depending on the sodomy laws of the state or locality, this may or may not be in compliance with the law.
- You shall not steal
Commandment #2 that is in line with the law and also one Westmoreland mentioned.
- You shall not bear false witness
Commandment #3 that is in line with the law and also one Westmoreland mentioned.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife and house
Under United States law, I am allowed to covet my neighbor’s wife, house and donkey. I could not commit an action that was illegal in and of itself to act on that, but there is nothing illegal in thinking about it. If you talk your neighbor’s wife into divorcing him and marrying you, there is no legal implication of that.
So there you have it. Depending on how you score the adultery issue, there are 3 or 4 commandments in line with United States law, 2 or 3 that the law is indifferent to, and 4 that are contrary to the rights spelled out under the United State Constitution. That is why conservatives who push this issue “can’t remember” all the Commandments. If they named them all as part of the debate, it is obvious on its face that this document has no place being associated with the United States Goverment. 65% of it is illegal for the government to attempt to enforce. When someone wants to display the Ten Commandments in a civic space, question #1 to ask is “Are you planning to show all 10, or just the 3 that aren’t illegal?”