WASHINGTON—The Ten Commandments Defense Act, approved by the U.S. House, has been hailed as a step in the right direction for the nation in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre.
But even the bill's sponsor doesn't think it will be a cultural panacea.
“I understand that simply posting the Ten Commandments will not instantly change the moral character of our nation,” Rep. Robert Aderholt, RAla., said at a recent press briefing. “However, it is an important step to promote morality, and an end of children killing children.”
The House voted 248–180 on June 17 for the measure which would protect public display of the Ten Commandments in schools and other government buildings.
After the Columbine tragedy in April, Congress drafted the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1999, which contained strong gun control legislation. But because many House members believed gun legislation alone could not address the issue of the nation's declining moral standards, they attached several cultural amendments to the bill.
A joint committee of House and Senate members will meet to decide on further congressional action on the juvenile crime bill. Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., is spearheading Senate efforts to keep intact the Ten Commandments provisions.
Aderholt's Ten Commandments Defense Act was one of the cultural amendments attached to the Juvenile Justice Reform Act.
It was drafted long before the Columbine shootings, authorizing individual states to allow the display of the Ten Commandments. The gun legislation portion of the bill died in the House, but the Ten Commandments act passed with a substantial majority.
“We want to emphasize that this amendment does not require that the Ten Commandments be posted in classrooms,” Laura Woolfrey, Aderholt's press secretary, told the Register. “It simply shifts the decision-making process about posting the Ten Commandments from the federal government back to the states.”
Aderholt's interest in defending public display of the Ten Commandments has been a popular issue in his home state of Alabama since 1995, when Circuit Court Judge Roy Moore hung his own handcrafted plaques containing the Ten Commandments in his Gadsden courtroom. The plaques attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which demanded they be removed. But Moore stood firm even when a District Court judge issued an order to remove the plaques. When the case came to the Alabama Supreme Court, the justices refused to hear it, saying the issue was political and not judicial. As a result, Moore continues posting the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.
Support on Both Sides
The Ten Commandments Defense Act has not been a one-party issue. Leading in support from the Democratic camp was Ronnie Shows, of Mississippi, whip for the pro-life caucus. According to Phil Alperson, his legislative director, “Congressman Shows believes that we need to promote moral values that are taught at home and in church, and those values should not be left outside of the schoolhouse door.”
Janet Parshall, spokeswoman for Family Research Council, hailed the bill's success. She told the Register, “This is a good step towards healing the brokenness of the human heart that is so pervasive among our youth today.”
Parshall added, “Violence is an issue of the heart. Until we get some heart repair all the gun laws in the world won't stop the problem. Guns are attached to hands, attached to bodies, and attached to the hearts where decisions are made. Let's get to the root of the problem. We have to stop treating the symptoms and go to the cause.”
She also maintained that the bill is not an infringement of the separation of church and state. “The phrase ‘the wall of separation between church and state’ is not in the Constitution but was written in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Society. It was not an idea that he wanted to see concretized in the Constitution.”
However, some organizations are already opposing the bill's passage claiming it is a violation of the separation of church and state. Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, told the Register, “The separation of church and state is the language embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution and the court has repeatedly ruled that [way] over decades of jurisprudence.”
Conn also said that hanging the Ten Commandments in schools might be confusing to children of various religions if they did not see their version posted.
Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, aided in drafting the Ten Commandments Defense Act. George does not believe the particular biblical translation of the Ten Commandments posted will be a bone of contention between denominations.
“The core understanding of the Ten Commandments is exactly the same for the Jews, Catholics and Protestants,” George said. “That argument is nothing more than a red herring, an attempt to divide religious people into accepting radical secularism.
“Those days of antipathy are over. People of the great Abrahamic traditions of faith are no longer going to fall for that nonsense. As a Catholic, I would be very happy to have a translation acceptable to our Jewish and Protestant brothers and sisters hanging in school classrooms.”
Ellen G. Pearson, writes from Washington, D.C.