July 10, 1999
HANG THE TEN COMMANDMENTS IN SCHOOL?
Three weeks ago, the U.S. House passed an
amendment to a Juvenile Justice Act that gave power to schools to display
the Ten Commandments.
Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston,
President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, applauded the
vote, but said merely hanging them in classrooms ''will not get the job
done,'' unless teachers use them to spark discussion on how ''each one of
the Commandments supports a particular virtue, and what is necessary to
uphold such virtues as honesty, justice, purity and an underlying respect of
individuals for God and for parents.''
Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public
Policy Center in Washington agreed: ''I don't see it as an establishment of
religion. It is not a state requirement. It is not coerced belief. Its
value depends on what each teacher does with it.''
However, the bill was immediately denounced by
Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of
Church and State, as ''one more sad example of religion being used as a
political football by Members of Congress. The Supreme Court has already
made clear that the posting of religious texts such as the Ten Commandments
in public schools is unconstitutional.''
Kentucky's law requiring the posting of the Ten
Commandments in every classroom, was declared unconstitutional by the
Supreme Court in 1980 without even hearing arguments by the Court: ''The Ten
Commandments is undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian
faiths...The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular
matters, such as honoring one's parents, killing or murder, adultery,
stealing, false witness and covetousness. Rather, the first part of the
Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshiping the Lord
God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord's name in vain, and
observing the Sabbath Day.''
Justice Rehnquist was one of two Justices who
dissented, noting that Kentucky's law cited a secular aim, actually stated
on each classroom plaque: ''The secular application of the Ten Commandments
is clearly seen in its adoption as the fundamental legal code of
Western Civilization and the Common Law of the United States.''
The current Chief Justice wrote, ''It does not
seem reasonable to require removal of a passive monument, involving no
compulsion, because its accepted precepts, as a foundation for law, reflect
the religious nature of an ancient era.'' Perhaps that view would prevail,
in a new case.
Dr. Glenn Stassen, professor of Christian ethics
at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote an article for youth pastors on youth
violence and what can be done about it. He cites a comprehensive review of
many studies by Delbert Elliott et al, ''Violence in American Schools''
which report that schools are much less violent if they foster and reward
academic achievement, promote the values of non-violence and cultivate
interpersonal skills for students to live non-
Another big difference comes when leaders such
as the President ''teach the value of human life and oppose violence
including laws to decrease the gun supply,'' argued Stassen, noting after
Clinton's advocacy of the Brady bill, murder rates fell dramatically.
Conversely, when a nation goes to war, and leaders justify it, the homicide
rate goes up.
He added, ''When kids or people feel included as
active participants, they do less violence. When they feel excluded, they
are more likely to do violence.'' More than 40 years ago as a youth
pastor, Stassen urged his kids to reach out to the person who is not
included. That changed lives.
In Abington v. Schempp, one of the cases in
which the Supreme Court ruled against prayer in the school, it also said,
''One's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or
the history of religions and its advancement of civilization. It certainly
may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic
qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such a study of the
Bible or of religion, when presented objectively, as part of a secular
program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First
Thus, much can be done to reduce violence
without posting the Ten Commandments.
Yet many will agree with Scranton's Catholic
Bishop James Timlin: ''I am in favor of anything that will help to correct
the moral compass of our young people. Putting the Ten Commandments in
a prominent place in our schools and teaching them is a step in the right
"What harm can come from this? None as far
as I can see.
"The whole revealed moral teaching of the Old
Testament is summarized in them. But what is more important, they also
express the essentials of the so-called natural law which is written in the
hearts of all men and women. People of all cultures and times are capable of
grasping the validity and good news of these commandments. It is the evident
duty to love that gives the Ten Commandments their power.''
Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.