Posted by Mary Wimberley on 2005-10-18

Four nationally respected scholars on religion and law presented a variety of views on the public display of the Ten Commandments in a program at Samford University Oct. 13. The complex subject, with many angles to consider and emotions to sort out, has garnered much attention in recent years. 

"The Ten Commandments on Display: A Discussion on Religion, Law and Public Life" was co-sponsored by Samford's Cumberland School of Law and Beeson Divinity School.

Panelists were Thomas C. Berg, professor, University of St. Thomas School of Law, Minneapolis, Minn.; Marci Hamilton, professor, Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, New York, N.Y.; Jay Sekulow, chief counsel, American Center for Law and Justice, Washington, D.C.; and Ron Sider, president and founder, Evangelicals for Social Action, Philadelphia, Penn.

Samford Provost Dr. Brad Creed was moderator of the two-hour program, which included introductory remarks by each panelist, lively discussion and questions submitted by the audience.

The discussion included references to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on cases involving display of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky and Texas, and a 2003 federal court ruling that ordered the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Supreme Court building. In the latter case, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was removed from office for defying the federal judge's order.

Berg, a former Cumberland professor, acknowledged that cases about public display of the 10 Commandments are often difficult for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide.

Such cases, he said, run into conflict between two principles: that the government should not take sides on religious disputes, and secondly, acceptance that the government can make general statements about God in cases where God is relevant to public life.

At the time of the founding of the country and writing of the Constitution, he said, the two ideas did not conflict. "There was no sect of people who did not believe in God. Now, there are many people whose religious position is different from one of monotheism," said Berg. "These ideas come into conflict, and the court has not wanted to choose."

"The court looks for lines to draw to have it both ways with these principles. I would argue that it is misguided for serious religious believers to want the government to get involved," said Berg, author of The State and Religion in a Nutshell.

To push for government to engage in matters of religious language and symbols such as the Ten Commandments can be a distraction from legal issues that he believes are more important to religious freedom and religious vitality in America, said Berg.

These include questions of free exercise--the ability of religious organizations to exercise their religion without interference by government, and equal aid--whether or not believers can receive government aid the same as others. Religious symbol cases work against advancing those causes, he believes.

Sider, calling himself a "simple, Bible-believing Christian," said that while American society needs the moral teachings found in the Ten Commandments, the free exercise clause does not give Christians the right to seize the levers of government in such matters as displaying them.

In listing his reasons in favor of display, Sider referenced the commandments' historical contributions to American law and the idea that some people are trying to remove all references to religion in public places. "We must stop them," he said, adding that secularists are not always wrong.

His reasons against public display acknowledge that the first four commandments are clearly religious, and endorse monotheism and specific beliefs about God, which many Americans reject.

"Government display implies that it endorses that belief," he said. "To install the Ten Commandments like Judge Moore did in Alabama is to wrongly ask the government to endorse a religious document."

Government should be neutral and not favor one religion over another, said Sider. "For government to endorse the Ten Commandments is to violate the free-establishment clause. If we don't want government to promote someone else's religion, we should not ask it to promote our own," said Sider, an advocate of holistic biblical faith and the author of the 1977 book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. 

Sekulow said that Supreme Court cases in religion are hard to reconcile, noting the different decisions in the Kentucky and Texas cases.

In June, the Supreme Court issued a split decision on the public display of the Ten Commandments on government property, forbidding framed copies on the walls of two rural Kentucky courthouses, while approving a six-foot-tall granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capital in Austin.

The court ruled that the commandments were put up in Kentucky six years ago with the unconstitutional purpose of favoring monotheistic religion, but that the Texas monument, erected in 1961, is a less blatantly religious statement tinged with secular historical and educational meaning as part of a group of similar markers on the grounds.

"The Kentucky case had a stormy history, and stormy histories don't work well in the Supreme Court," said Sekulow, adding that when the court sees something that looks like it was gerrymandered, and not part of history, it will likely be against it.

The Justices felt there was "no funny business" in Texas, but that there was in Kentucky, said Sekulow, who has made many oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in cases that defend constitutional freedoms.

The Alabama case involving a large granite display of the Ten Commandments which state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore had installed in the state capitol, he said, was stormy because of the way the case went down. It was, he said, a matter of a state Supreme Court chief justice defying a federal court order. The Alabama case impacted the decision in Kentucky, said Sekulow, adding that he felt both the Texas and Kentucky cases were constitutional.

Hamilton, noting that all four panelists are Christians, observed that discussion of the topic is not a debate between believers and secularists, but rather a debate between people with different world views of the role of government with respect to religion.

The history of the establishment clause must be understood with the facts of the founding of the nation, she said. Puritans, despised in England, came to America for freedom of religion reasons, but later did to people of other faiths what had been done to them. "They said, if you don't believe what we believe, you are not part of our polity."

The early Baptists in America, she noted, had a different experience. After encountering problems such as having their practice of immersion declared illegal, Baptists became vocal over separation of church and state.

"Baptists learned early on that if you didn't believe like those in power, you became the oppressed," said Hamilton, author of God vs. The Gavel: Religion and the Role of Law. 

It comes down, she said, to choosing which founders to agree with: the Puritans or the Baptists. The latter, she believes, who are the ones that "fundamentally got it."

"The court will continue to struggle with these issues, but they are worth struggling for, on behalf of the Baptists who started this country on the road of understanding that the establishment clause is clearly about religious liberty," said Hamilton.

About 175 students, faculty and interested members of the public attended the event, held in the moot courtroom of Robinson law building.


Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.