If you were a K-12 student in America before the mid 1980’s, then there is a strong possibility you passed a framed copy of the Ten Commandments somewhere in your school every day. It is not an equally strong possibility, however, they were a daily reminder of why you were not supposed to kill people (or maybe they were). After the documents were deemed unconstitutional by violating the first amendment’s implicit separation of church and state, dire predictions were made about America’s youth inevitably (and literally) heading south. Whether your current view of America’s youth is as pessimistic and whether a correlation exists between their removal and Grand Theft Auto is a subject for another article. The only legally legitimate argument to be attempted by Christians to justify violating the constitution is still making its rounds even today. Christians have claimed the Ten Commandments are the foundation of our legal system and therefore can constitutionally be displayed on government owned buildings as a historical document.
At first glance this argument to transform seventeen verses from the Old Testament into a secular legal document may not seem worthy of serious discussion. But in small towns around the country the Ten Commandments may still be found in schools, public courthouses and libraries alongside the Mayflower Compact. First of all, why should this even matter? It matters because the separation of church and state is an essential tenet to those who value secularism in America, as well as those religious groups who do not wish governmental interference. If this maxim from the first amendment can be skirted in such an incongruous manner then is it really something that the secular and religious alike should hold dear?
Only two of the Ten Commandments (theft and murder) are actually relevant to the judicial system. Of the remaining eight, three regard the proper way to worship Yahweh, and the other five, if violated, are accompanied by mild social sanctions. Therefore, the issue of the Ten Commandments as a legal document is narrowed to the question of whether our laws against murder and theft were directly derived from, or even influenced by the Ten Commandments? The answer is an unequivocal no.
The American legal system stems from English case and common law, which in turn, is derived from the ancient Roman legal system, which can be furthered traced to classical Greece. The Ten Commandments gained social prominence in western civilization only after Christianity became the favored religion in Rome of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. This occurred at least 700 years after Greek laws forbidding theft and murder were codified. Furthermore, laws prohibiting theft and murder are universal in civilization and in most examples date back to the social sanctions of hunter gatherer tribes.
Attempting to display a Judeo- Christian religious document in public areas under the guise of a secular document kin to the Mayflower Compact seems well, dishonest. If nothing else, that must violate the limits of acceptable irony-even by religious standards.