Once again, a display of the Ten Commandments in a secular, public setting is being legally challenged.Â And, once again, in a misguided defense, the religious are distorting both U. S. history and present-day reality.
Particularly unfortunate are the repeated misrepresentations of what is depicted in the United States Supreme Court, incorrectly cited as false justification for other displays.
Let's set the record straight. At issue in the case is whether Narrows High School, a public school in Giles County, Virginia, may post the Ten Commandments in a school, purportedly as a historical document.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Giles County School Board to have the display removed as an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.Â U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski recently ordered the case into mediation and proposed a compromise: Remove the first four commandments, which are explicitly religious, but leave the more secular subsequent commandments, such as "Thou shalt not kill."
Not surprisingly, Urbanski's proposal was considered by many faithful to be an offensive and untenable attack on religion.Â In reality, if the Ten Commandments had been posted only as a historical, not sacred, document, then no such offense or attack could be inferred.
The Supreme Court justices haven't considered the Narrows case. Â But the walls of their courtroom have some relevant tales to tell lessons very different from those that are too often, incorrectly, conveyed.
One common claim is that the Ten Commandments are displayed on the east wall frieze immediately above where the justices sit.Â This claim is demonstrably false.
A tablet is indeed centrally positioned in this frieze, engraved with the Roman numerals I through X.Â But, unlike the Ten Commandments, they are depicted on a single, not double, tablet.Â And according to Adolph Weinman, the sculptor of the frieze, these numbers represent "the ten amendments to the Constitution known as the 'Bill of Rights'."
Including, of course, the First Amendment, which explicitly prohibits government establishment of religion.
Another misleading claim is that Moses is shown holding the Ten Commandments on the courtroom's friezes. Yes, Moses is there.Â But so are some two-score other historical and allegorical lawgivers, who are given equal prominence.Â Moses receives no special artistic treatment, and his inclusion implies no special status in our nation's lawmaking.Â
Among other figures, you will find Draco, who authored the first Athenian code of laws, including death sentences for minor offenses.Â But the U.S. is not a "draconian" nation.
You will find Confucius, whose teachings formed the basis of Chinese government for two millennia.Â But the United States is not a Confucian nation.
You will find Muhammed, holding the Quran, the primary source of Islamic law.Â But the U.S. is not an Islamic nation.
Ironically, for those insisting that ours is a Christian nation, you won't find Jesus.Â
As for Moses?Â He is indeed holding the Ten Commandments, written in Hebrew.
But guess what?Â They are only partially visible from behind his beard.Â And the only commandments depicted are numbers six through ten, specifically chosen because they were not religious.
If Urbanski's proposal were blasphemous, then so too would be the Supreme Court display.
The 1797 treaty of Tripoli states the situation clearly: "[T]he Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."Â The treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate.Â Unanimously.
Now, that's a document worth posting in a school.Â
Gregory A. Clark is an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Utah.Â The views expressed are his own.Â