Thursday, August 2, 2007

Congress Seeks to Endorse the Ten Commandments

Yesterday in the House, Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) introduced H.RES.598, supporting the goals of the Ten Commandments Commission and congratulating the Commission and its supporters for their key role in promoting and ensuring recognition of the Ten Commandments as the cornerstone of Western law. It has been referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Where even to begin? First, it is a horrible waste of legislative time to address a purely symbolic resolution, especially with all of the far more pressing issues the country is facing.

Second, even though it is a symbolic resolution that will have no effect on the law if passed, I find it problematic that the legislature would support an organization whose goal is to restore the Ten Commandments in public places in spite of the 1980 Supreme Court Decision Stone v. Graham, which found that the Commandments are "undeniably a sacred text," and that their public display violates the First Amendment.

Third, the language of the H.RES.598 is facetious. It seeks to congratulate the Ten Commandments Commission for “promoting and ensuring recognition of the Ten Commandments as the cornerstone of Western law.” The Commission is not actually concerned with dubious premise that the Ten Commandments are the base of Western Law, they wish to prop up the Commandments as the Word of God itself, in hopes of giving the Bible greater authority in our laws and daily lives. Their mission statement reads:

As committed people of faith, we have an obligation to stand up together for God. His law is not only a profile of His character, but also a moral mirror to show humans where we have fallen short in both honoring the Creator, and in respecting our fellow man. Therefore, as we witness the degradation of society, we must come together in a spirit of unity, harmony, and reconciliation to bring the Word of God back to the forefront of our national conscience.

Now to address this claim that the Commandments are the foundation of Western law. For starters, the first four are explicitly religious and have nothing to do with secular law.

Further, the first documentation of written law was Hammurabi’s Code, which was written in approximately 1760 BC, 1000 years before the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments actually echoes many of the provisions of Hammurabi’s Code.

Then there’s the Magna Carta. Marci Hamilton, professor of law at Yeshiva University writes a nice column on the Ten Commandments, where she writes:

The Magna Carta, which forced the British King John to give up many rights to the aristocracy, was first set down in 1215 A.D. It was the first declaration that the people's ruler was under the law, the first check on royal power, and it introduced nascent concepts of due process, jury by one's peers, freedom of religion, and no taxation without representation.

Other monarchs agreed to future Magna Cartas, and it came to be considered central to the law of England. Even though it took a back seat during the 1500s, it was re-discovered and embraced in the 1600s to fight the tyranny of the Stuarts. Parliament used it as a wedge against the monarchs, in effect, creating the beginnings of the separation of powers we now take for granted. It is common
knowledge that the principles of the Magna Carta were carried across the
Atlantic to the New World and the colonies, and bore fruit in the United States
Constitution and state laws.

The most recent copy was recently installed with much pomp and circumstance in a handsome display in Philadelphia's Independence Visitors' Center. There is no question that the Magna Carta--which was the first written declaration of rights by landowners against the monarchy--was a strong influence on later rights declarations, including the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

The vast majority of American law, including the rules against killing and stealing, was borrowed in whole or in part from the British common law--which itself was viewed either as rising from natural law or from custom, not from the Ten Commandments.

With all of that being said. Americans who support the separation of church and state should reject even symbolic encroachments of religion in the public square. However we should not loose site of the substantive encroachments that the Religious Right continue to push for such as: Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives, religious school voucher programs, the teaching of Creationism in science classes, and the denial of equal rights to gay Americans.

No comments: