Why the Ten Commandments make for such messy law.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Oct. 15 2004 5:35 PM

Ten

Why the commandments make for such messy law.

(Continued from Page 1)

Thus, a massive sculpture of the image of the Buddha or of Christ being taken down from the cross in the sculpture garden of a public art museum would plainly not violate the First Amendment. But exactly the same sculpture, called a "monument" to Buddha or to Jesus and placed on the steps of a county courthouse, would raise serious constitutional issues.

One difficulty with an emphasis on context is that such an emphasis is necessarily very fact-specific, requiring courts to weigh variables case-by-case, inevitably leading to results that seem erratic and lend themselves easily to caricature. Two prior Supreme Court cases dealing with the displays of crèches on public property, for example, appear to have been influenced by the extent to which the figures of the infant Jesus, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, and wise men are accompanied by congeries of less religious significance—namely Rudolph, Frosty, or Santa. In the case of the Ten Commandments displays, the accompanying hosts are more dignified—typically including neighboring displays of the Declaration of Independence, the Star Spangled Banner, the National Motto, or the Mayflower Compact. The Texas monument includes Hebrew script, an American eagle, two Stars of David, a symbol of Christ, the Greek letters Chi and Rho superimposed on each other, and the symbol of pyramid with an eye, similar to that on a one-dollar bill. This really isThe Da Vinci Code!

Advertisement

Such detailed inquiries about context may make the case law, and even the court's concerns, appear trivial, especially when addressing questions of such vast national consequence. But for the justices in the middle on this issue, the answers are anything but. Their ultimate opinions will be nuanced, thoughtful, and complex. Let's hope the public debate on this issue will be the same.

Correction, Oct 18: The Texas monument was intended to honor the Boy Scouts generally, not the Eagle Scouts in particular, as the piece originally implied. Return to the corrected sentence.

Rod Smolla is dean of the University of Richmond School of Law.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 8:51 AM The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 9:00 AM Exclusive Premiere: Key & Peele Imagines the Dark Side of the Make-A-Wish Program
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.