There are many people in this country who believe that it is good public policy to place a copy of the 10 Commandments on the walls of our public buildings. I believe that they are wrong.
Proponents of these initiatives make many arguments about why the 10 Commandments should be posted, all of which are based on the proponent’s own religious belief. (I have never heard an atheist argue that they should be posted.) One of the principal arguments made by proponents is that they are good laws to live by.
My initial reaction to this argument is that they’re right – in part. We don’t want people to murder (6th), steal (8th), or commit adultery (7th). Even some of the other Commandments are things that we would like to see in society but are harder to enact into law, such as no coveting (10th) and honoring your parents (5th). However, those are not the only commandments. The first four Commandments deal with man’s relation to God and read in part:
1. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
2. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image....Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them...”
3. “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain...”
4. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
These seem like “good rules to live by” only if you are a Christian who believes in the Bible (or are at least afraid of the Christian God). Otherwise, people have reason to keep the Sabbath holy, or to refrain from taking the name of the Lord in vain. For example, a Hindu would most likely be hesitant to worship the Christian God over say, Vishnu. Not only that, but different religions believe in different translations of the Bible. Posting one translation instead of another could send the wrong message.
My second response to the argument that they are good laws to live by is that there are also many other religious creeds that “are good laws to live by.” For example, the 5 (or 7, depending on the sect) Pillars of Islam which call for adherents to fast, pray, give to the needy, etc. are also good practices that people should engage in. In fact, one of the first steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is to acknowledge a higher power, similar to the first Pillar of Islam and the first Commandment. Nevertheless, I feel confident in predicting that if any county wanted to post the Pillars on the courthouse wall, there would be a broad national outcry against it. The same outcry would probably result from an attempt to post them next to the 10 Commandments in the same display.
The 10 Commandments are religious edicts, not public policy and as such do not belong in our public buildings, except in a religiously and philosophically diverse display outlining historical facts, rather than religious beliefs.