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FIRST-PERSON: American law & the Ten Commandments

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (BP)–The game of word association, which most of us learned as children, works this way: I say a word or phrase, and another player says what immediately comes to mind. It is a simple exercise in exposing predispositions. The assumption is that the game reveals something significant about your personality or your biases.

So, for example, if I say, “The Ten Commandments,” what immediately comes to mind? “Two tablets”? “Religious document”? “Old relic”? “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? “Charlton Heston”?

How about “American law”? Would you think of that? Well, as it turns out, you should.

Unbeknownst to many, American law and the Ten Commandments are inextricably associated. But the catch is this: It only goes one way. While the Ten Commandments can stand alone as God’s law revealed to Moses, American law would be drastically different without the Ten Commandments.

Consider the following:

— The structure of modern American law is derived from the Ten Commandments. Historically speaking, the Ten Commandments provided the basis for the division of law into branches of constitutional, criminal, family, property, contract, and tort law. Official recognition of this historical fact does not establish a religion.

— Every commandment has played a key role in American legal history. Whether revisionists want to admit it or not, the entire Ten Commandments were incorporated into the civil and criminal laws of the colonies and shaped the common law of the colonies.

— American courts repeatedly have acknowledged the foundational role of the Commandments. Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly have recognized the foundational role the Ten Commandments played in the development of our legal system. And state Supreme Court decisions contain well over 100 references to the Commandments.

— The meaning of “establishment” of religion is not strict separation between church and state. As ADF argued on behalf of Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council in a friend-of-the-court brief recently submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court for a case involving the Ten Commandments, the “hallmark of historical establishments of religion was coercion of religious orthodoxy and of financial support by force of law and threat of penalty.” “Establishment” doesn’t mean that religion can never be mentioned in public or rightly acknowledged as a basis for American law.

— There are literally thousands of Ten Commandments displays in the public square across the nation. The displays are commonly placed at seats of government and are often found in and around courthouses.

When we consider all the rhetoric about the supposed inviolable “wall of separation between church and state,” it is not surprising that some people are confused. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause was meant not only to protect the church from government intrusion, but also to prevent government from imposing a particular religious belief with the threat of punishment for non-compliance. This is the true meaning of that famous clause. Thousands of Ten Commandments depictions have been displayed in the public arena for more than a century, and no one has ever been punished for failing to follow them or been forced to bow down and worship them.

The Ten Commandments are by no means the sole foundation of American law, but they obviously played a pivotal role in its development. Indeed, without their influence, this nation’s moral and legal character would look much different today.

Though “American law” and “the Ten Commandments” may not be commonly known companions in the “Word Association” game, they are indeed inseparable. The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases March 2 on the display of the Ten Commandments in public venues. While the court should uphold these displays, the Ten Commandments will remain inscribed in the stone of American history no matter what they decide.
Jeremy Tedesco is a constitutional attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a pro-family legal organization based in Arizona.

For more information on Ten Commandments legal issues, visit Alliance Defense Fund’s webpage at www.telladf.org/tencommandments

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  • Jeremy Tedesco