Ten Commandments and public square don't mix

While it's good that the Supreme Court refused Feb. 22 to hear cases put forward by some Kentucky counties looking for judicial sanction of their public Decalogue display - thus leaving intact a lower court's ruling banning it - it's unfortunate that such debates haven't yet been settled.

In 2005, the same counties were told to take down the Ten Commandments, but have since put them into a larger display that includes other public documents, such as the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence, that use the term "God." The ACLU argued that the counties were simply trying to change the content of the display so that they could legally convey the same message: America is a faithful, religious nation.

The ACLU didn't have a hard case to argue: the litigants admitted this as their goal.

The fact of the matter is that, while the word "God" appears here and there on federal documents, this was never a nation built on any single religion or faith. It also isn't a nation whose founders were unanimously religious. Some were Christians, some were opposed to Christianity and some were anti-religious.

This bears repeating: a good portion of our nation's founders were anti-Christian or anti-religious.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1800 in his journal, "Gouverneur Morris had often told me that General Washington believed no more of [Christianity] than did he himself." At another time Jefferson said that he didn't find any "redeeming feature" in Christianity, and even went so far as to rewrite the Bible, taking out references to the divinity of Jesus.

Benjamin Franklin, believed to be a Deist, said that he wished Christianity "were more productive of good works ... I mean real good works ... not holy-day keeping, sermon-hearing ... or making long prayers, filled with flatteries and compliments despised by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity."

These quoted founders would likely be as appalled at Judaism, Islam or any other religion as they were of Christianity. The point here isn't to bash any particular religion. If we're to bash anything, it should be attempts to force any belief system on the American people.

Here is where another argument creeps in: The Ten Commandments, supporters of their public inscription insist, are not simply religious dogma but the basis of morality. This is nonsense.

To talk about the Ten Commandments, it's first necessary to ask, "Which version?" The Exodus version or the Deuteronomy? Both are slightly different - not a good quality in the bedrock of your morality - and it's hard to figure out where to actually divide them to make them into "ten" commandments, instead of the more than 15 directives in each set of Biblical verses.

Let's look at the list most people think of when they consider the Decalogue, as listed by Wikipedia. Even this list is suspect, as it shows different numbering systems for Jews, Catholics and Lutherans, other Protestants and the Orthodox. The first three or four (depending on whether you're counting the ban on making idols separately), all say the same thing in different ways: make sure you honor only the Abrahamic God, and do it correctly. (This isn't a viable option for atheists, Hindus, Buddhists and many millions of others, and it certainly isn't compatible with the Constitution.)

Some of the commandments are good: Don't kill, don't steal ("steal" may only refer to kidnapping, based on some interpretations, so it might be okay to pocket a few things at the store). It's good to honor your parents, though it's hard not to feel bad for the victims of child abuse. The commandment doesn't have an "except" clause.

Most people are against adultery, but is it really in the same league as murder?

And then there are the commandments that forbid thought crimes. Thou aren't supposed to covet your neighbor's stuff (anyone, apparently, wishing they had the same lawnmower as the people across the street is guilty of a something akin to murder). Nor are you supposed to covet his wife. (Only men count, apparently.)

Thankfully, these commandments are not the basis of American law, nor are they the basis of our founder's morality. Wouldn't it be awful if they were? Nearly half of all our rules would be in violation of the first amendment, and a fifth of our laws would, in the spirit of 1984, ban thought crimes.

The beauty of the U.S. is that, unlike Britain or France, it was set up as a secular state. All people, regardless of their beliefs, enjoy the same rights. Under our Constitution, a Catholic, an atheist, a Jew, a Muslim - whomever - have the right to believe what they wish.

But they'd better not try to make it the law.