washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Religion

A New Judgment Day For Decalogue Displays

As Issue Nears High Court, Argument Develops Over Differing Versions of Ten Commandments

By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2004; Page B09

Sometime in late winter, advocates for and opponents of public displays of the Ten Commandments will argue the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time in 25 years.

Litigators on both sides agree that the justices probably will set parameters on what constitutes an acceptable display of the commandments, relying partly on the court's previous decisions on the display of Nativity scenes in town squares and courthouses.


A Ten Commandments monument, above, sits on the Texas Capitol grounds in Austin. (Larry Kolvoord -- Austin American-statesman Via AP)

_____Ten Commandment Cases_____
Kentucky Case (ACLU v. McCreary County)
Texas Case (Van Orden v. Perry)
Versions of the Ten Commandments Vary by Tradition

JEWISH VERSION

1. I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

2. You shall have no other gods besides Me.

3. You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God.

4. Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.

5. Honor your father and your mother.

6. You shall not murder.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor's house: you shall not covet your

neighbor's wife, or . . . anything that is your neighbor's.

Based on the Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Jewish Publication Society, 1985). Numbering varies by tradition.

CATHOLIC-LUTHERAN VERSION

1. I am the Lord your God: you shall not have strange Gods before me.

2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

3. Remember to keep holy the Lord's Day.

4. Honor your father and your mother.

5. You shall not kill.

6. You shall not commit adultery.

7. You shall not steal.

8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

9. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.

"A Traditional Catechetical Formula" in Catechism of the Catholic Church (U.S. Catholic Conference, 1991).

PROTESTANT VERSION

1. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out

of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.

2. You shall not make yourself a graven image.

3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work.

5. Honor your father and your mother.

6. You shall not kill.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or . . . anything that is your neighbor's.

Based on the Book of Confessions (Presbyterian Church USA, 1991).

They disagree, however, on whether the existence of different versions of the Ten Commandments -- reflecting theological differences among Protestants, Catholics and Jews -- will or should affect the court's decision.

"No doubt it's something I'm going to emphasize," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University constitutional scholar who will appear before the court on behalf of Thomas Van Orden, a homeless man and former defense lawyer who for several years has been fighting to have a six-foot granite monument of the commandments removed from the statehouse grounds in Texas.

"My argument in part is: Is there 'a' Ten Commandments?" Chemerinsky said. If such monuments are allowed, the "choice of which one to use is a religious choice."

But Mat Staver, president and general counsel for Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, which is representing two Kentucky jurisdictions whose framed commandment displays were ordered removed from courthouses, said, "The issue of different versions is a red herring." The King James-based list posted in the courthouses was "no one's version," he said, arguing that it -- like all renderings -- was an abbreviated form of biblical passages.

That debate will be part of a broader First Amendment argument over whether the displays constitute government endorsement of religion or government allowance of the free expression of religion.

The court last addressed the Decalogue issue in 1980, when it struck down, 5 to 4, a Kentucky law that required the posting of the commandments in public school classrooms. The court ruled that the law had "no secular legislative purpose."

Since then, advocates of church-state separation have clashed with those who argue that the 1980 ruling does not prohibit all government-backed displays of the commandments. Dozens of cases have worked their way through lower courts, and many have been appealed to the Supreme Court without success.

Last week, the court decided to hear the Kentucky and Texas cases.

Those cases will rely less on the previous commandments decision and more on subsequent rulings involving Nativity scenes, litigators predicted. In 1984, the Supreme Court upheld the display of a creche on city property, ruling that religious symbols can be placed on government property as long as the displays are not "motivated wholly by religious considerations."

Such symbols also must have a secular purpose, such as being placed among other symbols, religious and otherwise, that present the cultural, historical and legal foundation of a city, county or state, the court said.

In 2001, in a possible preview of arguments to come, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist quoted the 1984 case and similar creche cases in dissenting with the court's decision not to hear a case in which a monument virtually identical to the one in Texas was ordered removed from city property in Elkhart, Ind.

Joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in dissenting from the court's denial, Rehnquist acknowledged that the Ten Commandments are sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity but said they "have secular significance as well, because they have made a substantial contribution to our secular legal codes." He noted that a carving of Moses holding the Ten Commandments is part of a frieze of historic lawgivers "that adorns . . . the south wall of our courtroom."


CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company