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Austin American-Statesman

Opinion: The Ten Commandments Bill: Thou shalt not play favorites

By Mark Chancey and Marc Zvi Brettler,

11 days ago

The Ten Commandments bill passed through the Texas State Senate last month faster than the Hebrews through the Red Sea. The bill, which requires public schools to display the commandments, is now under consideration in the House. Its journey thus far has revealed considerable confusion about the commandments, the Constitution, and the “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” of religious freedom.

That confusion was evident from the moment Sen. Phil King (R-Weatherford) introduced it. The commandments are a foundational “American tradition,” King argued. “If you go to the U.S. Supreme Court you’ll also notice when you walk in, as an establishment of its role in law and liberty, the Ten Commandments is posted above the Justices and in the doors.”

King was correct about the doors of the Supreme Court Chamber, which bear a symbol of the commandments. But he was wrong about the image above the Justices. He could only have had in mind a tablet numbered one to ten on the chamber’s East Wall Frieze. But the frieze’s sculptor, Adolph Weinman, identified that tablet as “the ten amendments to the Constitution known as the Bill of Rights.” The Justices deliberate under the Constitution, not the Ten Commandments, and the Constitution’s First Amendment prohibits any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’’ A bill that promotes religious texts in public schools would seemingly fall into its “Thou shalt not” category.

King and the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Candy Noble, (R-Murphy) have suggested that the commandments are the foundation of American law. But this claim, too, is mistaken. Neither the Declaration of Independence, nor the Constitution, nor the Federalist Papers mention them. The Founders drew their inspiration from Enlightenment philosophy and English common law, not Sinai.

Had they turned to the Ten Commandments, they would first have had to determine exactly what they are. The Bible’s two versions, in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, sometimes diverge. The first, for example, justifies the Sabbath by invoking God’s day of rest after six days of creation, while the second urges its observance by recalling God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Things get even more complicated; scholars now recognize that ancient sources vary in their wording of each passage. Later translations also differ. There is no such thing as the Ten Commandments—only versions of them.

Which one should schools post? And how should they number them? Does the first commandment begin, “I am the Lord thy God,” as in the Jewish, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions, or not, as in most Protestant traditions? Are the edicts not to worship other gods and not to make idols part of the same commandment (Jews, Catholics, Lutherans) or separate ones (most Protestants)? Do the commandments prohibit killing, as in the King James Bible, or murder, as in most modern translations?

The bill’s answer is to mandate posting a version found in no one’s Bible: the text from the Ten Commandments monument at the state capitol that the Fraternal Order of Eagles donated in 1961. The F.O.E. committee that fashioned its watered-down wording stripped away the commandments’ distinctively Jewish elements. Gone is any reference to the God who brought Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Gone are the reasons for keeping the Sabbath and any indication that this commandment refers to the seventh day of the week (as in Judaism), not the first (as in Christianity). The result is a generically Christianized version.

The Ten Commandments bill signals to students of other faiths and non-religious students that they are lesser citizens. Its sponsors say they are supporting religious liberty, but when the government plays religious favorites, that is the opposite of religious freedom. One cannot help but wonder if a crack is forming in the tablet above the Supreme Court’s bench.

Chancey is a professor of religious studies at SMU Dallas. Brettler is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor in Judaic Studies at Duke University.

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