Judge to School District: Let’s Cut the Ten Commandments Down to Six

Last June, after a contentious battle that ended in a Ten Commandments banner being taken down, the school board in Giles County, Virginia voted 3-2 to rehang the display, surrounding it with other historical documents.

The old Ten Commandments display in a Giles County school

Is that still government endorsement of religion?

That battle is playing out in the courts right now.

During oral arguments this week, Judge Michael Urbanski offered up a possible compromise as the case goes into mediation:

“If indeed this issue is not about God, why wouldn’t it make sense for Giles County to say, ‘Let’s go back and just post the bottom six?’” Urbanski asked during a motions hearing in U.S. District Court in Roanoke.

“But if it’s really about God, then they wouldn’t be willing to do that.”

Interesting theory. Here are the Commandments that would get cut if both sides accepted the deal:

  • I am the Lord thy God, Thou shalt not have strange gods before me
  • Thou shalt not make for thyself any graven image
  • Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
  • Remember to keep holy the sabbath day

And there are the ones that would remain:

  • Honor your father and your mother
  • Thou shalt not kill
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery
  • Thou shalt not steal
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness
  • Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife

Stephen Hirtle from the Steel City Skeptics doesn’t think this revised version would be any better:

As rules for the students to live by, this list is very odd. How about “Study hard” or “Do not cheat on exams”. More to the point, the Ten Commandments are there not because of what they say, but because of what they imply. They are an arbitrary list of rules that are important to the religious, as they establish the precedent that certain rules transcend humans and come directly from a god. To accept the Commandments is to accept your god as the ultimate decider. The judge even mocked the school board in their disingenuous comments:

He’s right. The revised version isn’t any better than the original. You might as well cut the bits about coveting a neighbor’s wife and committing adultery since it doesn’t directly apply to them. Good luck telling high school students to obey their parents. And it’s more than a bit dispiriting that anyone would have to tell high school students not to kill each other.

If mediation doesn’t work out, the same judge will have to decide the case. From his comments so far, it sounds like he understands this is all about sticking god into the public schools — not showcasing a display of historical documents for students — and he will likely vote it down. Let’s hope that’s the case anyway.

If the school board loses the case, they run the risk of having to pay over $100,000 in court costs to the ACLU.

Incidentally, an anonymous student from Giles County’s Narrows High School is the plaintiff:

In court documents, the Associated Press reported, the student spoke of feeling compelled to “hide participation in this lawsuit from my closest friends and the person I am dating.”

“Filing this lawsuit has not been easy, and I would not have done it if I were not genuinely disturbed by the Ten Commandments in the school,” the student said in the court statement…


About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • gski

    If the ten commandments are historical so are Adam & Eve, the tower of Babel and …  But then the entire bible would be considered history.

    • 0xabad1dea

      While the cutesy story about their origin is just that, the Ten Commandments *are* historical laws observed by a real culture.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

        Just not the culture represented by the public school system.

        If they want a list of ten (or six) posted, what’s wrong with the Bill of Rights (or, say, a representative six–I don’t see the Third Amendment being a big deal…)

      • Good and Godless

        Roughly the same rules as before the story was created, the “story” just created credence because parents fails to explain why kids should behave. 

      • gski

         I don’t see that the school board posted “historical laws” they are posting the ten commandments claimed to be given by god.  That the secular commandments are followed, is not relevant to those wanting the commandments posted.

  • TheBigBlueFrog

    What about not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk? Did that one get cut?

    • Good and Godless

      They have not moved forward enough to officially adopt the new covenant, there was a papal committee and the voting has not been accurately tallied yet.

  • Tom

    Huh, never heard of something like this, where the defendants in this kind of scenario propose revising the 10 commandments to be secular.  It is an interesting turn of events.  And even more interesting for me, the judge proposing this, Michael Urbanski, taught at my school as a sort of consultant for my government class (in Catholic school!).  I have respect for the guy, he’s quite bright and open minded.  I don’t think any of the commandments deserve being up in a public school, but I’m pretty impressed Urbanski went as far as to pull a “Jefferson” and cut out pieces.  Virginia is a religious state, overall.  I was really pleased when Obama nominated him to the federal district court, he beats most Virginia judges in my book.

  • Carla

    Good for this student. I hope he/she knows that there is a lot of support out there for him/her. Do you guys think this would still be an issue if the school had chosen to repost the commandments with a compilation of other religious documents? Like a “religions of the world” kind of thing? Do you think something like that would even occur to them?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christopher-Nolte/48701519 Christopher Nolte

    I really think it depends on how it’s framed (and I mean that almost literally).  If the Ten Commandments are posted, in full, along with other sets of law throughout history like the Dharmaśāstra, the Halakha, Hamurabbi’s Code, The Magna-Carta, etc…then I feel that the Ten Commandments has a rightful place posted in a public school. But I also feel that religion should be taught in schools. All religions. TAUGHT. Not preached.

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

      More than that, the context of the documents needs to be provided alongside them.

      Hammurabi’s Code is historically interesting, but it needs to be stated that these were laws defining society in ancient Mesopotamia. Nobody is legally bound by them today.

      The Magna Carta is historically interesting, but it needs to be stated that this defined the powers of the English king 800 years ago. Only a fraction of it is in legal force today, and only in England.

      The Ten Commandments are historically interesting, but it needs to be stated that these were a set of religious rules developed by a tiny, extinct tribe of nomads in the Middle East around 3000 years ago. Nobody is legally bound by them today, and no extant law is derived from them. And unlike the other historical documents, the Ten Commandments exists in many forms, with no version being definitive.

      • Coyotenose

         “And unlike the other historical documents, the Ten Commandments exists in many forms, with no version being definitive.”

        Aren’t there three versions just in the Old Testament?

        • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

          Which “Old Testament”? There are lots of those, too.

  • Good and Godless

    Truly to meet half way:

    There is no Lord thy God,
    Thou shalt not have strange gods
    Thou cannot possibly make for thyself any graven image
    Thou shalt only take the name of the Lord – no one’s God – in vain
    Remember there is no holy sabbath day

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Honor needs to be earned, not given blindly. While we would hope parents have that sort of relationship with their child, it’s not certain, so that one needs to be taken from the list.

    “Thou shalt not kill” is false. All societies recognize the need and right to kill under some conditions. So it should be written “thou shalt not murder”, which is simply a restatement of the law.

    Adultery is defined by the sort of contract a couple has chosen to enter into. In some cases it may be allowed (e.g. an open marriage). If this simply said “honor your commitments”, that might be okay. As it is, it’s out of place.

    “Thou shalt not steal”… just another restatement of the law.

    “Thou shalt not bear false witness”. This is pretty good advice. But still not universal, since most people recognize that ethical behavior can include lying at times.

    Coveting describes our feelings, over which we have limited control. How we act is what matters, not what we think. This one is also out of place.

  • newavocation

    How about thou shalt keep church and state separate.

    • Hkevinmoore

       Where is that stated?  Not the first amendment. 

  • Stev84

    Honor your father and your mother

    This is not actually enforced in any law. And it becomes downright immoral when you’re in an abusive home

    Thou shalt not commit adultery

    Outside the military, adultery is not illegal

    Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife

    This is punishing a thought crime. There is nothing wrong with coveting (i.e. desiring) as long as you don’t always act on it. Covering is also the very basis of capitalism

    • Pseudonym

       

      Outside the military, adultery is not illegal

      Neither is failing to study hard, or cheating on exams.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Sweet/1280927267 James Sweet

    I mostly agree with your points about the six commandments in theory, but in practice I say: Go for the compromise.  Because NOBODY ACTUALLY WANTS THAT.  This is not a deal that is intended for the other side to accept; it’s intended to force their hand.  The bad guys are now forced to say, “Well, no… actually, the goddy parts are kind of important to us.”

    I think it’s an interesting legal question whether the government can endorse secular values by cribbing from a religious text… I’ve been waffling on it… but it’s a moot point. Nobody wants that, so this is just a tactic.

  • Ibis3

    Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife

    Not only should this one be struck as a thoughtcrime, and because it wouldn’t apply to school kids,  but because it clearly means that males are the only people (since the commandments are addressed to them–no married lesbians here, surely), and females are chattel to be coveted.

    • Nerdsamwich

      If they’re going to put it up, it should be the whole thing: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” Makes it a little more clear just what Yahweh thinks of women.

  • http://southernhumanist.wordpress.com/ R. Lee Bays

    But how will I know not to covet my neighbor’s slaves?

  • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

     We can always use George Carlin’s Three Commandments:

    Thou shalt always be honest and faithful to the provider of thy nookie.

    Thou shalt try real hard not to kill anyone, unless of course they pray to a different invisible man than you.

    Thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself.

    • Hkevinmoore

       If only he had done that.  But then you wouldn’t be able to quote him

      • http://twitter.com/Cafeeine Cafeeine

        Tell you what.  You take care of the Abrahamic religions. As soon as they all stop proselytizing, I’ll make sure no one repeats that Carlin skit again.

  • Ken

    I actually love the idea of only posting the six basically secular commandments.  That, or insist on adding the other ten commandments from Exodus 34, in the interest of historical accuracy, of course. Then let the debates begin about unleavened bread and boiling kids in their mother’s milk.

  • A sane person

    You know, I am not a religious person but I am not stupid enough to openly oppose or limit the written word of the only God there is. This judge is the type of idiot that is hell bent on destroying society and using his bench to promote his own twisted agenda. I think that the ACLU and this mentally ill judge should read the last page of the Bible and soak it up. When Obama was elected President every slimey, perverted, sick , and mentally unstable being in this country was turned lose to spread as much perversion and sickness that they could. Right now I would say that the Liberal makeup is a combination of the Lord of the Flies and Children of the Corn.

    Destiny has a place for this judge and all his followers. Live it up now and enjoy your twisted lifestyle while you can. The same God that made you will destroy you. Think it’s funny? Laugh while you can.

    • Spherical Basterd

      Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk!

      Hey Moe! Where’s the lightning bolts?

    • CanadianNihilist

       “You know, I am not a religious person but…”
      Reading what comes after that it looks like your a liar. Like most religous people though so who is surprised?

    • matt

      You think the ten commandments were written by god?  Which one?

  • Ed

    We don’t need to get rid of  four commandments – what we really need to do is get rid of all these fucked-up low-life judges that legislate from the bench.  This idiot needs to go – straight to hell preferably!  Oh, and take the ACLU with you.

    • Spherical Basterd

      Thank you for the childish display of your horrid Christian “values”.

      One question though: Are you really saying that this judge should go against the Constitution of our country, the Constitution he is sworn to uphold and ignore the First Amendment?

      Entitled indeed! 

    • Patterrssonn

      Nice Poe

  • Jminion

    we should add a few and make it ten,
    Thou shall not rape
    thou shall not hold slaves
    thou shall  have sex with children
    thou shall not lie for a god

  • Richmeister

    Thou shall use thy head before listening to medieval scripture.
    Thou shall listen to ones heart.
    Dont be silly and kill anyone.
    Work hard, but not too hard so you stress yourself out. 
    Get a cat. Look after him.
    The world is populated enough thanks so please use a condom when shagging. If it splits, as a last resort, have an abortion.
    Watch Hitch on youtube.
    Amen.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Fersomling Monty Ehrich

    Here come de Judge!


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