First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 5, No. 1, August 2004
The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United
The Ten Commandments in Public Schools
By Jim Huff
The “Ten Commandments” debate. It’s not a debate about the relevance of the Commandments as religious teachings. It’s not a debate about their place in Western culture. The debate is shall a level, any level, of government determine for all of its citizens the value of those religious teachings.
That is a dangerous responsibility to be given to any level of government. No matter how devout a teacher, a judge, an elected representative may be, they cannot be the spokesperson for a religious conclusion for all citizens under their jurisdiction.
Do you want a public school teacher interpreting for all students, “Do not worship any other gods beside me…”? Which God? Which god? What does “worship” mean? What source is the teacher using for their instruction?
Do you want a public school teacher, a judge, a legislator interpreting for all students, “Do not make idols of any kind…”, “Do not misuse the name of your Lord the God…”, “Remember to observe the Sabbath…”, “Honor your father and mother…”, “Do not …murder…commit adultery… steal… testify falsely… covet your neighbor’s…”?
By itself, the Commandment “Do not murder…” raises a wide spectrum of Jewish and Christian viewpoints. Does murder include the “death penalty” or “combat in a war”? The best any teacher can do, and be honest with their students, is to say some believe this and some believe that. That is the proper response to any of the Commandment questions that a student might ask.
I know the historical element that the Commandments have played in our history and our culture. I taught Bible History as an elective course in the Social Studies curriculum of Oklahoma City Public Schools for many years. Long before the current debate was brought to the forefront. I currently teach Sociology and Religions of the World. Then and now, the Ten Commandments were an academic part of the class and not a collection of religious doctrines for my students.
When I taught Bible History, during the first semester, we studied the Hebrew Bible (Christians often call it the Old Testament) including the Book of Exodus. Moses and the Mosaic Law was very much a part of my class presentation. We used both the Bible itself and another text entitled, Essentials of Bible History by Elmer Mould. Note, it was Bible History and not Holy Bible History. This is an important distinction that must be remembered. It is critical for teachers to remember this when deciding whether to post or not to post a copy of the Ten Commandments in her or his public school classroom. It goes without saying that the same distinction must be understood in a court room, a government building, or on any public property.
The Supreme Court has ruled that a study of the religious and secular explanations for our society and its culture is to be desired. A study of the Bible as an element in our social customs and religious traditions is appropriate. But, the Bible and its accounts cannot be presented as a religious conclusion for all students. The public school classroom that is studying history, or sociology, or language arts, or mathematics, or physical education is not a Sunday School class.
The same applies to the posting of the Ten Commandments. They are an element in our cultural history. The Ten Commandments have great religious value to those who accept them as religious in their origination. The Decalogue is important to a wide spectrum of Jewish and Christian faith traditions. The first four commandments deal with Hebrew relationships to their God. All clearly religious in their intent. The remaining six have to do with Hebrew relationships with people. To many, those six statements have religious intent also. But, those six are also given significant importance among other non-theistic religious traditions and secular morality.
The Commandments must be presented with other examples of models for social behavior. The Buddhist Eight Fold Path of righteousness for example. Quotes from the Code of Hammurabi, quotes from the Qur’an (Koran) and quotes from other religious and secular sources are all important for the students to study.
Any poster that a teacher opts to place on their classroom wall, no new law was needed to give them that right, should be relevant to the objectives of the teacher and that subject. If is worth posting on the classroom wall, its worth discussing with the students and to clarify the posters relationship to the subject of the class.
The Supreme Court has never ruled that religious traditions are banned from our public school classes. The Court has been very clear that any reference in a public classroom or public school setting must be a study “about” the faith teaching and not a “doctrinal conclusion” for the students in attendance.
The student’s family and their faith traditions or secular traditions is the only proper place for the final conclusion of the application value of the Ten Commandments.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
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