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Jan 17 2014

American Atheists File Suit Against OK Ten Commandments Monument

American Atheists has filed a federal lawsuit against the Ten Commandments monument placed on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol. There is already an ACLU lawsuit on the subject but it was filed in state court instead. There are couple things I like about the complaint in this case, which you can read here. The first is that it points out that merely by choosing which version of the commandments to include, the government is endorsing a particular theological position.

45. The actual text of the Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue, has been translated in numerous different ways since its apparent origination in ancient Hebrew. As such, there is no universally agreed-upon definitive version. It differs even from what might be considered “original” sources. For example, the Ten Commandments appear in two different books of the Hebrew Bible, Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21. The text is not identical
between these two particular sources, and the Commandments vary both in title, text, number, and numerical order from other common sources or versions of the Commandments. In some religious doctrine, the Commandments are referred to as “ten words” (biblical Hebrew), “ten verses” (Tyndale and Coverdale English translations), “tenne commandements” (Geneva Bible), and “ten commandments” (King James Version). Despite these variations of title, text, number, and numerical order, the Ten Commandments embody principles of sacred worship, conduct, ethical behavior, and signify clear, deep spiritual and religious meaning to many Christians and Jews. Their religious context is clear and unmistakable.

46. This particular text represents an English translation of the Ten Commandments inconsistent with those officially adopted by the Catholic Church and within Orthodox Judaism, generally conforming more closely to particular Protestant interpretations of the text (but not all Protestant interpretations).

The second is that it points out that most of the Ten Commandments, if made into actual laws in this country, would be unconstitutional:

49. The first commandment of the Display, if it were part of Oklahoma law, would be unconstitutional, because it would establish, at a minimum, Jewish and Christian monotheism as the law of the land. The very bedrock of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is that the United States does not permit the establishment of a religion, the preference of religion over nonreligion, or the preference of one religion (or a subset of religions) over others.

50. The second commandment of the Display prohibits the making of “graven images.” However, if this commandment were part of Oklahoma law, it would fail as a violation of citizens’ free speech and expression rights protected under the United States and Oklahoma Constitutions. From the foundation of the United States, the making of graven images has been part and parcel of being an American, honoring our Founding Fathers, and honoring the United States.

51. The Ten Commandments Display itself may also be regarded as a “graven image,” due to the imagery carved upon it along with the text. Other works of art depicted in and around the Capitol building commonly depict various “graven images.”

52. The third commandment of the Display, as with the second, would be a violation of the United States and Oklahoma Constitutions. A prohibition of taking a name in vain, even of one subset of religion’s “Lord,” would in most cases be a violation of every citizen’s right to free speech and expression.

53. The fourth commandment of the Display is essentially a religious test, which would require citizens to remember a particular Sabbath Day and “keep it holy.” Originally, the Sabbath was Saturday. Christians generally have changed it to Sunday, although some Christian denominations still consider Saturday the Sabbath. In any case, requiring citizens to engage in a religious practice is inconsistent with the First Amendment’s protection under the Establishment
Clause. It would constitute both an establishment of religion, and also a clear restriction on a citizen’s free exercise rights. The injunction that citizens must “remember” a Sabbath Day is also an invasion of their minds, which, if enacted into law, would reach the hand of government into the very thoughts of citizens.

54. The fifth commandment of the Display requires persons to honor their fathers and mothers without qualification or condition, and implies that failure to do so will result in a person’s shortened longevity. (“Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”) If enacted into law, the fifth commandment would not pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment.

55. The sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth commandments are all commonly understood “wrongs.” These are the only four commandments listed which bear any relation to lawful action by state or federal authorities relative to persons within their jurisdictions.

56. The last commandment on the Display imposes another invasion into the human mind. It effectively creates a “thought crime,” wherein the citizenry is enjoined not to “covet” certain items. The items listed include people such as one’s “wife” and “servant” as among “things” like homes and cattle that are possessed by people. Absent is a reference to thy
neighbor’s “husband.” If this were part of Oklahoma law, it arguably would fail on Equal Protection grounds, unless torturously interpreted differently than its plain meaning.

This is the same argument I’ve been making for years, though I think they concede too much on commandments 6-9. The ban on adultery would also be unconstitutional and the ban on bearing false witness is only applicable in specific settings (perjury, fraud, defamation). It clearly undermines the ridiculous argument that it’s okay to put up monuments to the Ten Commandments because they form the basis of our law. That is patently false.

23 comments

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  1. 1
    Chiroptera

    The second is that it points out that most of the Ten Commandments, if made into actual laws in this country, would be unconstitutional:

    That is a puzzler. Why would courthouses, where the Constitution is supposed to be upheld, venerating a document that advocates policies that violates the entire intent of the Constitution?

  2. 2
    richardelguru

    So the Ten (-ish) commandments are not OK

  3. 3
    Synfandel

    Why would courthouses, where the Constitution is supposed to be upheld, venerating a document that advocates policies that violates the entire intent of the Constitution?

    Because Jesus. End of analysis.

  4. 4
    raven

    Originally, the Sabbath was Saturday.

    Not quite right.

    The Jewish Sabbath is sundown Friday to Sundown Saturday.

  5. 5
    d.c.wilson

    The 10th Commandment would also be a violation of the 13th Amendment, since it clearly treats wives and servants as property.

  6. 6
    Chiroptera

    In fact, a court house displaying the Ten Commandments would kind of like Keck Observatory displaying an astological chart.

    Actually, it would be exactly like that.

  7. 7
    steve78b

    PEOPLE KEEP GETTING THE WRONG 10 COMMANDMENTS!!!

    I wish the 10C lovers would read their bibles. Moses broke the first set that everyone uses… did not give them to the Israelites!! Then he went back up to the mountain and in Exodus 34 wrote a new set WITH DIFFERENCES that he brought down. Verse 28 has God saying “.. these are the (my) ten commandments.”

    I personally like the commandment about “… thou shall not seethe a kid in its mothers milk..” I do not like baby goat gravy on anything. God was watching out for us.

    steve in ok

    ……. an atheist trying to get people to READ their bibles instead of JUST BELIEVING in them ……..

  8. 8
    richardelguru

    Steve, but those ones make even less sense than the first set!
    God must have been on a hell of a bender the night before…

  9. 9
    peterh

    A number of the “actual” ten commandments – Exodus 34:12-27 are concerned with keeping kosher. The fundies would go apoplectic (apocalyptic?) over that.

    Less thumping and more reading would serve the religiots quite well.

  10. 10
    peterh

    @ #8: Where is there a requirement that they make sense?

  11. 11
    steve78b

    Sorry .. God did not say ” …. these are the (my) 10 commandments..)

    The last part of verse 28 just says “And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.”

    steve in ok

    … gotta keep it straight ….

  12. 12
    steve78b

    richardelguru …. it does appear that the big guy was a little incoherent …….like me with bourbon.

    Steve in ok

    “Oklahoma is OK” thats the best motto we can come up with?????

  13. 13
    Marcus Ranum

    This is going to make for some serious head-scratching in creo-land! I like it!

  14. 14
    tasmaniac666

    Pedantic comment ahead.
    The search for an interpretation on Oklahoman legal grounds may probably have to be a “tortuous ” rather than “torturous” one.
    Just sayin’.

  15. 15
    Menyambal

    I liked 51. Putting up a graven image that forbids graven images has always seemed bizarre.

    Doesn’t the bible forbid religious display, anyhow? Something about not praying on street corners, I think it was.

    The original Sabbath was at the full moon. The seven-day week was a post-Babylonian revision. There is a verse somewhere that says, “new moon or sabbath”.

  16. 16
    peterh

    @ #15,

    The street corner business was not expressly forbidden, only pointed out as ostentatious and unseemly with a hint of being hypocritical as well.

    And the moon’s phases still determine the dates for Passover & Easter each year.

  17. 17
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    @tasmaniac666:

    No reason it couldn’t be both.

    (But I agree that “tortuous” is what was intended.)

  18. 18
    ArtK

    I think that “torturous” was the intent, in the sense of “tortured reasoning”. Interpreting the law that way isn’t a tort, but it does torture the law to interpret it thus.

  19. 19
    coragyps

    Steve – I understand that the motto “Oklahoma is OK” was adopted because nobody at the Capitol knew how to spell “mediocre.”

  20. 20
    dingojack

    Re: the second commandment:
    Statues are out, lithographs, line drawings, photographs, watercolours, oil paintings etchings, engravings, low-reliefs, guilloché, cloisonné, holograms, stained glass, mosaics etc, are all perfectly OK (for OK).
    Dingo
    ——–
    coragyps – reminds me of the old joke
    ‘Why did Michael Jackson call his album “bad”? Because he couldn’t spell “pathetic”‘ :)

  21. 21
    chuckonpiggott

    Mel Brooks told us about the 15, oops, 10 commandments.

  22. 22
    dingojack

    [My post (#20) above takes a originalist stance, of course. But who are we to interpret the very words of almighty god? Surely he'd use his omniscience to see the obvious rejoinder and say exactly what he wants to prevent the faithful from doing, right?]
    Dingo

  23. 23
    paulburnett

    Dingo (#20) wrote “Statues are out, lithographs, line drawings, photographs, watercolours, oil paintings etchings, engravings, low-reliefs, guilloché, cloisonné, holograms, stained glass, mosaics etc….

    That’s pretty much the Islamic view – no images of sentient living beings. No illustrations in medical textbooks for instance.

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