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Opinion: The Ten Commandments Bill: Thou shalt not play favorites

Austin American Statesman

By Mark Chancey and Marc Zvi Brettler. Chancey is a professor of religious studies at SMU Dallas. Brettler is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor in Judaic Studies at Duke University

The Ten Commandments bill passed through the Texas State Senate last month faster than the Hebrews through the Red Sea. The bill, which requires public schools to display the commandments, is now under consideration in the House. Its journey thus far has revealed considerable confusion about the commandments, the Constitution, and the “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” of religious freedom.

That confusion was evident from the moment Sen. Phil King (R-Weatherford) introduced it. The commandments are a foundational “American tradition,” King argued. “If you go to the U.S. Supreme Court you’ll also notice when you walk in, as an establishment of its role in law and liberty, the Ten Commandments is posted above the Justices and in the doors.”

King was correct about the doors of the Supreme Court Chamber, which bear a symbol of the commandments. But he was wrong about the image above the Justices. He could only have had in mind a tablet numbered one to ten on the chamber’s East Wall Frieze. But the frieze’s sculptor, Adolph Weinman, identified that tablet as “the ten amendments to the Constitution known as the Bill of Rights.” The Justices deliberate under the Constitution, not the Ten Commandments, and the Constitution’s First Amendment prohibits any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’’ A bill that promotes religious texts in public schools would seemingly fall into its “Thou shalt not” category.

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