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The Confederate Flag and the 10 Commandments

As a card-carrying member of the ACLU, I support the free speech rights of individuals to prominently display flags and commandments of their choice on private property, bumper stickers, and T-shirts. But nobody may enlist the government to promulgate a particular religious view.
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South Carolina finally did the right thing by removing the Confederate battle flag from capitol grounds. The state had been bitterly divided about whether the flag represents heritage or hate, while I believe it represents heritage and hate. There is nothing in the South Carolina or U.S. Constitutions that prohibits flying the Confederate flag on public property, but the court of public opinion changed after a Confederate flag-promoting racist murdered nine African Americans recently in a Charleston church.

I applaud Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) who called for the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina Statehouse grounds in an attempt to unify citizens who have diverse views on the flag, but Senator Scott and I part company over whether South Carolina should endorse the Ten Commandments. As a member of Charleston County Council in 1997, Scott insisted on posting the Ten Commandments on the wall of council chambers, despite being told that he would lose any legal challenge to the action. In response, Scott argued that the display was needed to remind citizens of moral absolutes. Scott, normally a fiscal conservative, then added, "Whatever it costs in the pursuit of this goal (of displaying the Commandments) is worth it." The court, as expected, declared the display unconstitutional and handed taxpayers a substantial bill for legal costs.

Even worse was Alabama Judge Roy Moore, who in 2001 placed a 5000-pound block of granite inscribed with the Ten Commandments in the Judicial Building in Montgomery. After courts ruled that this violated the constitutional prohibition against religious endorsement, Moore refused to remove the monument so he was removed from office in 2003. However, he's now back as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and ignoring federal law that allows for gay marriage.

Government officials continue to promote the Ten Commandments while disregarding secular laws they swear to uphold. The most recent example is from Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who defied a state Supreme Court ruling that a monument to the Ten Commandments be removed from the grounds of her state capitol.

Liberal religionists understand the importance of church/state separation and of the government not favoring one religion over another or religion over non-religion. Yet most people believe that the Ten Commandments are among the finest guidelines for a virtuous life. Interestingly, hardly anyone can actually name them. When then-councilman Tim Scott's Ten Commandments plaque was illegally placed in Charleston County Council, he was asked if he could name all the Commandments. He couldn't.

Even fewer people have thought through the implications of how our pluralistic, democratic, and freedom-loving society would change were the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20 to become law.

The First Commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," conflicts with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom of religion -- the right to worship one, several, or no gods. The next three Commandments (no graven images, not taking God's name in vain, keeping the Sabbath day holy) refer to specific kinds of worship directed toward a God who punishes several generations of children because their fathers did not believe. These first four are religious edicts that have nothing to do with ethical behavior. They describe how to worship and pay homage to a jealous and vindictive God.

Those who claim these commandments are our Judeo-Christian heritage don't realize that they predate Christianity. Jesus, a Jew, would be considered a false god by his people, not one to be worshipped. And the Sabbath would be on Saturday, not Sunday.

The Fifth Commandment, about honoring parents, should not be so unconditional as to condone child abuse. There is no commandment about parents honoring their children or treating them humanely.

The next four (proscriptions against murder, adultery, stealing, and lying) obviously have merit, and existed in cultures long before Moses.

The Tenth Commandment, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, wife, slaves, ox, donkey, or any other property," condones slavery and treating women as property. Furthermore, the American system of capitalism relies on coveting our neighbor's posessions.

The biblical penalty for violating most of the religious commandments is death.

These commandments are also notable for what they omit. Instead of condemning covetousness and threatening to punish children if their parents don't worship in the correct way, why not condemn slavery, racism, sexual assault, child and spouse abuse, and torture? After a few moments' thought, most of us could come up with a better set of rules to live by. See, for instance, the Ten Commitments from the American Humanist Association.

The Commandments in Exodus 20 are the most popular version, but an angry Moses smashed them according to Exodus 32:19. Religions don't promote the anachronistic replacements found in Exodus 34, which is the only place (Exodus 34:28) that the Hebrew Bible actually refers to the Ten Commandments. Its sage advice includes: thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven, the firstborn of a donkey shalt thou redeem with a lamb, and (my personal favorite), thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk.

As a card-carrying member of the ACLU, I support the free speech rights of individuals to prominently display flags and commandments of their choice on private property, bumper stickers, and T-shirts. But nobody may enlist the government to promulgate a particular religious view.

While controversies abound about posting religious commandments on public buildings, I propose a simple solution that both honors our democratic principles and reminds us of the curbs on governmental abuse of power: Let's display our Bill of Rights on public buildings. We would still be posting ten (rights, not commandments), and we Americans can all support and celebrate these ten. Or can we?