Commandments Confusion: Louisiana lawmakers get Decalogue fever

Louisiana is a perfectly nice state with a lot of good people in it – but some of the state’s legislators and public officials don’t seem to get it when it comes to separation of church and state.

The Pelican State has repeatedly passed laws that mix religion and government. Over the years, several laws have been passed designed to promote creationism – the most recent effort being a so-called “science education act” that attempts to bring anti-evolutionism in through schoolhouse backdoors.

Certain towns and parishes are known for injecting Christianity into school events. In Bastrop, a high school student who protested school-sponsored graduation prayers last month literally had to leave town. In addition, Gov. Bobby Jindal is infamous for using a taxpayer-funded helicopter to visit churches.

And now the state is considering posting the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the capitol in Baton Rouge.

The Louisiana House of Representatives has already approved the bill (unanimously). Its sponsor, state Rep. Patrick Williams (D-Shreveport) insists his measure has no religious intent.

“The significance is historical,” Williams told Reuters. “Our laws are based on the Ten Commandments. In fact, without them, a lot of our laws would not exist.”

Come on. The Ten Commandments, according to the Old Testament, were delivered to Moses personally by God on Mount Sinai. God had inscribed the two stone tablets with his own finger. He then handed the tablets to Moses and warned him that if the people did not obey this code, there would be consequences.

Several of the commandments regulate religious behavior.  They warn against worshiping false gods and ban graven images. They caution against taking God’s name in vain. They admonish people to keep the Sabbath.

It sure sounds like a religious document to me.

As for the claim that the Commandments are the source of our laws, that allegation is handily debunked by even a cursory look at history. Laws against murder, theft, lying, etc. have existed since people began living together in an organized fashion. Societies can’t function if these laws aren’t enforced. That’s why they’re common in all religious and ethical systems.

We often hear the claim that the Founding Fathers based American law on the Ten Commandments. Religious Right activists say it a lot – but no historical evidence backs up the claim. It’s time to put this myth to rest.

Back in 2003 when Americans United and our allies were battling Alabama “Commandments Judge” Roy Moore in court, 41 law professors and legal historians came together to file an important legal brief in the case. They mustered ample evidence to show that Moore’s claim that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of American law is all wet.

The brief noted that  “various documents and texts”  figured in the development of American law, among them English common and statutory law, Roman law, the civil law of continental Europe and private international law.

American law, the scholars pointed out, was also influenced by the writings of William Blackstone, John Locke, Adam Smith and others as well as the Magna Carta, the Federalist Papers and other sources.

“Each of these documents had a far greater influence on America’s laws than the Ten Commandments,” asserted the brief. “Indeed, the legal and historical record does not include significant and meaningful references to the Ten Commandments, the Pentateuch or to biblical law generally.”

I’m all for educating Americans about the law and its many and varied sources. One place that gets it right is the main chamber of the U.S. Supreme Court, which contains a frieze along its south and north walls that explains the evolution of the law over many centuries.

Moses is included because he was a lawgiver – but he’s not the only one up there. You can also see ancient Greek lawgivers like Solon and Draco. You see Confucius, Hammurabi, the Roman Emperor Augustus, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Napoleon and many others. (See the full list here.) The point of the display is to educate about the various influences of the law over time. It’s a much more effective teaching tool than to simplistically claim that all law springs from one source.

If Williams and his supporters really wanted to help Louisianans understand the origins of the law, they would erect one like that. But that’s not what they want to do. They want to endorse religion.

A court ought to make them stop.

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