The Ten Commandments Controversy: A First Amendment Perspective (revised 2005)
Ten Commandments Controversies
Posted: July 19, 2005
Proposals to post the Ten Commandments often create wide divisions in communities that are already struggling with profound problems of their own. Opponents of these initiatives -- many of whom are deeply religious themselves -- are portrayed as being anti-religious freedom or even anti-God. School board meetings and local elections have become battlegrounds over religion rather than over practical issues such as juvenile crime and low test scores.
When an Illinois school board voted unanimously to post the Ten Commandments in public schools, the resulting controversy dominated local politics for months. After several months of acrimonious debate, the school board rescinded the decision in order to avoid a costly lawsuit. Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore posted the Ten Commandments in the state courthouse and refused to remove them even when ordered to do so. In defiance of Federal authorities, then-Governor Fob James threatened to use military force to prevent their removal. Moore was eventually removed from the Court for defying the order.
Since Federal law allows for religious symbols to be posted on government property if that property is opened to all religious expression, posting the Ten Commandments can have unexpected results. After a Pennsylvania school district announced its decision to allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in a display in school libraries, religious and non-religious groups began clamoring for an equal chance. In addition to the Biblical text, other documents chosen for the display included: a tract from the Wiccan religion; a document discussing gay rights; and an introduction to atheism.