church and state hi res_newWritten by Don Byrd

[UPDATE 4/8: Governor Asa Hutchinson has signed the bill into law. Associated Press reports.]

While everyone was paying attention to the Arkansas legislature for its Religious Freedom Restoration Act bill (which was signed into law yesterday), yet another bill impacting religious liberty made its way to the Governor’s desk with much less fanfare. SB 939 authorizes the state to display a monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the State Capitol.

The bill, passed with overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate, specifies that the monument will be privately funded, and allows the Attorney General to enlist the Liberty Legal Institute to defend the monument should it be challenged in court.

Like other efforts to authorize state-owned Ten Commandments monuments, Arkansas’ bill emphasizes the historic significance of the Decalogue to the founding of America. As BJC Executive Director Brent Walker has explained, that is dubious history at best:

Although there is a sense in which religious ethics underpins our legal system, the connection is too attenuated to justify government officially endorsing one religion’s sacred text. Only three of the Commandments—killing, stealing and bearing false witness—are the proper subjects of secular law. The others are religious. . . . Moreover, documents that have directly influenced our legal system—the Magna Carta, English Bill of Rights, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, Federalist Papers—say very little about religion and nothing about the Ten Commandments.

Some Ten Commandments monuments on state property manage to pass constitutional muster; others are found to violate the separation of church and state. The context of the law’s passage and of the monument’s placement is key to determining its legality. Regardless of its constitutionality, however, such displays are a bad idea, and violate important religious principles.

Nearly ten years ago, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s pair of decisions regarding state-sponsored monuments to the Ten Commandments, the BJC’s Holly Hollman wrote a column that still rings true. Here is a key snippet:

Government-sponsored religious monuments are always constitutionally suspect and theologically questionable. Any rule that puts government in the position of making religious decisions threatens the freedom of religion. Those who share the BJC perspective on religious liberty will continue to promote the Ten Commandments (and other scriptural mandates) in a way that the Bible encourages: by writing them on our hearts, as the prophet Jeremiah instructed.

Scripture is best honored when it is promoted in homes and houses of worship, and by individuals free to claim their beliefs. It should not become the domain of the state, which always attaches strings and embodies a coercive power that is anathema to true religious freedom. Faith does not need, and should not want, that kind of help.