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Court in 2003 case ruled 'The 10' has secular side

One case relevant to U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski’s argument in The ACLU of Virginia and the Freedom From Religion Foundation v. the Giles County, Va., School Board is King v. Richmond County (Georgia), which was decided for Richmond County almost exactly nine years ago, on May 30, 2003. In that case, a panel of judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stunning ruling. The “Ten Commandments,” the majority ruled, has its secular side.

At specific issue was a seal used by the Richmond County Superior Court.

“The Seal is circular, with the words ‘SUPERIOR COURT RICHMOND COUNTY, GA’ inscribed around the perimeter,” the 11th Circuit decision noted. “The center of the Seal contains a depiction of a hilt and tip of a sword, the center of which is overlaid by two rectangular tablets with rounded tops. Roman numerals I though V are listed vertically on the left tablet; the right lists numerals VI to X….The Seal’s only function is to authenticate legal documents….[It] is affixed to all certified copies of court documents and real-estate records, witness subpoenas, certifications of juror service, notary certificates of appointment, and attorney licenses. Approximately 24,000 documents bore the Seal in 1999.”

There was nothing constitutionally wrong with the Richmond seal, the court ruled. In doing so, it affirmed a ruling made in 2002 by a U.S. district court judge, who emphasized the role “the 10″ played in the secular development of law.

That argument, in turn, went back to one made by the late William Rehnquist, chief justice of the United States, almost exactly two years earlier, on May 29, 2001. That was when the Supreme Court, by a six to three vote, let stand an order to remove a granite display of the tablets from the Elkhart, Ind., town square. Rehnquist (who was in the minority with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas) argued that the court should hear the case, because the monument “simply reflects the Ten Commandments’ role in the development of our legal system.”

The court majority, however, agreed with Justice John Paul Stevens, who had a hard time accepting that the monument was anything but religious in nature. After all, Stevens noted, these words were inscribed in type decidedly larger than the rest of the monument (and in this way): “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS – I AM the LORD thy GOD.”

That, said Stevens, made it “rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference.”

The 11th Circuit had no such “offensive” words confronting it in the King case. So its decision, written by Senior Judge Phyllis A. Kravitch, fell back on the “secular side” of the tablets. While she was at it, Kravitch also apparently fell back on her Hebrew School education. (By all accounts, Kravitch, a Georgia native who will be 92 in August, is a remarkable woman and a remarkable jurist. Among many distinctions, she was the first woman ever elected to Georgia’s Superior Court and the third woman ever appointed to a federal appellate court, put there by fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter.)

“Although the Ten Commandments are a predominantly religious symbol, they also possess a secular dimension…,” Kravitch wrote. “[T]he first four Commandments concern an individual’s relationship with God….The final six commandments, however, deal with honoring one’s parents, killing or murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and covetousness; all of these prescribe rules of conduct for dealing with other people. Much of our private and public law derives from these final six commandments.”

(The phrase “or murder” is where the Hebrew School lessons come in. Someone who has studied the text in its original – Hebrew – form is more likely than others to include “or murder,” since murder is what the text actually prohibits. The same holds true for dividing the tablets between “religious” and “secular” obligations; that is a very Jewish way of analyzing the text.)

Kravitch’s decision was not appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, so it remains a valid precedent for the Virginia case, especially as it seems to foreshadow Urbanski’s “split decision” suggestion.

Both Kravitch and Urbanski – and so many others – separate the “first four” commandments from the “second six,” and four plus six make ten, which is how everyone refers to the document, regardless of whether the next word is commandments or statements or whatever.

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