Atheists Get Slapped Down in Pennsylvania Ten Commandments Case

“A federal judge in Pennsylvania has thrown out a lawsuit challenging the presence of a Ten Commandments monument at a local high school, declaring that the complainants have not suffered injury from the display.”

That’s hardly a good argument. “Plaintiffs … have failed to establish that they were forced to come into ‘direct, regular, and unwelcome contact’ with the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of Valley High School,” wrote U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry.

What if there were people who argued that they came into “unwelcomed contact” with the Ten Commandments? Would that mean the display should be taken down? I come into “direct, regular, and unwelcomed contact” with all sorts of laws every day. The tax code is a good example.

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“In 2012, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a lawsuit against the [Ten Commandments] display on behalf of local resident Marie Schaub and her daughter, who complained that they were disturbed by the monument’s presence” at her high school.

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I know, laws that demand that people not lie, steal, or murder are disturbing. Maybe the atheist group doesn’t like the fact that the Ten Commandments come from a sovereign God. If there is no God, then there are no laws against lying, stealing, and murdering. That seems to be more disturbing.

Who’s right in the battle over the Ten Commandments? If as groups like the ACLU and the FFRF maintain the posting of the Ten Commandments is “fundamentally religious” and the “endorsement of religion in general and Christianity in particular,” doesn’t this mean that the displays are by definition unconstitutional? Ultimately, a ruling would have to come from the Supreme Court. But how would the court rule given the fact that displays of the Ten Commandments have such a long history in the United States in prominent places like court rooms?

As Chief Justice Warren Burger noted in his majority opinion of Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Supreme Court Chamber in which cases related to religion are “heard is decorated with a notable and permanent — not seasonal — symbol of religion: Moses with the Ten Commandments.”1

Ten Commandments_PA
Supreme Court Chamber in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

In addition to the Supreme Court, state courtrooms and capitols across our land have housed similar displays for decades without any legal challenges or constitutional prohibitions: The Texas State Capitol, the chambers of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and scores of other legislatures, courthouses, and other public buildings. “In fact, the Ten Commandments are more easily found in America’s government buildings than in her religious buildings, thus demonstrating the understanding by generations of Americans from coast to coast that the Ten Commandments formed the basis of America’s civil laws.”2

One of the most interesting displays is a sixteen-panel mural painted by Violet Oakley that graces the walls of the courtroom of the Supreme Court in the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the state where this latest Ten Commandments case was filed and adjudicated. The panels show the progress of law, “beginning with the panel of Divine Law, over the entrance door, and ending with the Spirit of the Law, so beautifully symbolized by Christ walking upon a troubled sea filled with sinking ships of strife.”3

Ten Commandments_Harrisburg
State Supreme Court in the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Another panel shows Jesus Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, revealing the Christian idea of Law. One of the most striking panels displays, in the words of artist Violet Oakley, “Moses hewing out the Ten Commandments upon Mount Sinai, under divine inspiration.”4

In a summary statement of the relationship between Divine Law, Natural Law, Common Law, and the Law of Reason, the artist includes panels that are illuminated quotations from the introduction to Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. Blackstone and his Commentaries had the profoundest impact on American law. According to Blackstone, “Human laws are only declaratory of an act in subordination to Divine Law.”

These images have been nearly expunged from the internet.

How can the FFRF maintain that displays of the Ten Commandments violate the First Amendment when these Christian depictions of law were commissioned, sanctioned, and presided over by the State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in the 1920s? If the FFRF and today’s courts are consistent, these murals will have to be covered up or painted over.

When a copy of the mural showing Moses with the Ten Commandments was hung in a Pennsylvania high school, the following note accompanied it: “What an irony that the Ten Commandments are displayed so prominently in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, yet such displays are prohibited and challenged in classrooms and courthouses across our Nation.”

  1. U.S. Supreme Court Lynch v. Donnelley, 465 U.S. 668 (decided March 5, 1984), II.C. []
  2. David Barton, “The Ten Commandments: A Part of America’s Legal System for Almost 400 years!,” Prepared and presented in response to multiple ACLU lawsuits against public displays of the Ten Commandments, United States District Court, Eastern District Court, Eastern District of Kentucky, London Division (March 2001). []
  3. George Wharton Pepper in Violet Oakley, The Holy Experiment: Our Heritage from William Penn, 1644-1944 (Philadelphia, PA: Cogslea Studio Productions, 1950), 107. []
  4. Oakley, The Holy Experiment, 111. []
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