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July 10, 1999
Column #932

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-
violently.

     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 Amendment.''

     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 direction.

     "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.

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