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A New Judgment Day For Decalogue Displays

A sculpture of Moses also appears on the pediment above the east entrance to the Supreme Court building.

Those who argue for allowing public displays of commandments have said that the differing versions of the commandments are irrelevant because the Decalogue's role in the formation of Western jurisprudence meets the requirement for a "secular purpose." Those who oppose the displays point to differences in content and numbering as indicators of theological disagreements that might be exacerbated by the public showing of any one version of the commandments.


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).

Three generally accepted versions of the Ten Commandments exist, according to religious scholars: Jewish, Catholic-Lutheran and Protestant. (The Protestant version also is used by many Orthodox Christians.)

The commandments appear several times throughout the Bible but most notably in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The earliest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible present the passages as blocks of text without paragraphs or verse enumerations. Those were added later by different schools of interpreters -- which led to varied numbering systems.

The Jewish version, often called the "Ten Utterances," presents the First Commandment as a statement of the relationship between God and the Israelites: "I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage." The Second Commandment is, "You shall have no other gods besides Me."

The Catholic-Lutheran and Protestant versions present "I am the Lord your God" as a preface to their First Commandment, "You shall have no other gods before Me."

Jewish scholars point to what they consider a more crucial ethical and moral distinction: the Jewish translation of the Sixth Commandment as "You shall not murder." Traditional Catholic and Protestant versions say "You shall not kill" -- a broader ban that might cover such societal actions as capital punishment.

The two Christian versions also differ in substantive ways. The Protestant version lists, as a separate commandment, "You shall not make of yourself a graven image," a statement the Catholic version omits. Some analysts say the Protestant version arose from Reformation efforts to rid churches of statues of saints, while the Catholic version allows such statues.

The Catholic version breaks the prohibitions against covetousness into two parts, "9. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife" and "10. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods." The Protestant version combines covetousness into one, as No. 10.

Such differences are not insignificant, said Jeffrey Sinensky, general counsel for the American Jewish Committee, which, along with other national Jewish organizations, plans to write amicus briefs opposing the public display of the Ten Commandments.

"Many people of strong faith belief are concerned when someone takes what they believe to be the word of God and uses it in a fashion they are uncomfortable with," he said.

Jay A. Sekulow, chief counsel for the Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice, said he believes the court will pay little attention to arguments about different versions of the Ten Commandments.

"It's not a factor in these cases," said Sekulow, who has successfully argued eight of 11 First Amendment cases before the court and is representing pro-display clients in 10 lower-court cases. Instead, the court will focus on the historic nature of the displays, including the length of time they have been in place and the context in which they appear, he said.

The displays in Kentucky and Texas involve different versions of the Ten Commandments.

The monument on statehouse grounds in Austin has been in place since 1961, one of as many as 200 monoliths donated from the 1950s through mid-1980s by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, said Sue Hoffman, a retired schoolteacher in Washington state who has researched the history of the Eagles' placement of monuments nationwide.

Most of the granite monoliths, including the one in Austin, use an interfaith version put together by a committee of Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy, she said. The text begins with an overline "I AM the LORD thy God," then proceeds with 10 unnumbered commandments in smaller lettering that are a variation of Jewish and Christian versions.

The Eagles' monument project began in earnest after the release of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 film "The Ten Commandments." DeMille helped the Eagles program get started, Hoffman said, and replicas of the tablets used in the movie appear at the top of the monument. Two Stars of David and a symbol of Jesus -- the superimposed Greek letters Chi and Rho -- are at the bottom.

The Ten Commandments displays in the Kentucky courthouses were framed, printed pages citing the King James translation of the Decalogue, unnumbered, from Exodus 20:3-17. The statement "I the Lord am your God" does not appear; the prohibition against making graven images does; and the translation of the Sixth Commandment is "Thou shalt not kill."

The court is expected to issue its decisions by the end of June.


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