Freethought Today · Vol. 27 No. 7 September 2010

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

How many Commandments are there, Judge?

An attempt to slip religion into a Tennessee courthouse appears to be an inside job. To add insult to injury, the perpetrator(s) badly bungled the job, with atheists from FFRF having to set the religious record straight for the true believers.

Juvenile Judge James “Jay” Taylor, whose courtroom is in Rogersville, Tenn., wears his Christianity on his judicial sleeve. The evidence is all over his personal website. Taylor is behind an effort to mount a display called “Foundations of American Law and Government” in the Hawkins County Justice Center, which houses the jail, three courtrooms and offices. The County Commission’s Building Committee unanimously approved the display, heavily weighted with religious elements, including the Ten Commandments.

Besides the constitutional violations, as the Foundation noted in a July 23 letter of complaint, shouldn’t a decalogue that’s supposed to be historical at least have ten commandments? Taylor’s proposed Commandments plaque listed only nine (omitting adultery — hmm), and mixed up the Roman numeral XI for IX. Local news media neglected to pick up on the errors, which Taylor corrected after FFRF’s letter pointed them out.

The display purports to include Benjamin Franklin’s epitaph, which, as FFRF Attorney Patrick Elliott notes, has “absolutely no relation to the foundation of the United States or ‘civic heritage.’ ” Even worse is that the epitaph in the display is a mock version written by Franklin more than 60 years before he died. It uses the metaphor of a book to explain that Franklin will go to heaven and reappear “In a new and more elegant edition, revised and corrected, by the Author.”

FFRF sent an Action Alert to members, and Ron Locatelli of California weighed in to tell Taylor to note that Franklin’s burial site in Philadelphia has no mention of God or religion. “It’s pretty frightening to have a judge who doesn’t understand the law, misrepresents American history and proselytizes his beliefs at the expense of citizens with other views,” Locatelli wrote.
The display’s 14 documents are all obviously meant to show that America really is a Christian nation. The display includes a copy of “George Washington’s Prayer at Valley Forge,” a painting by Henry Brueckner. But, Elliott said, it’s made-up history. “The painting is historically inaccurate. Historians have debunked this myth. There’s not one bit of evidence that Washington ever kneeled in the snow to pray.”
None of the items mention the original secular U.S. motto, which was selected by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Franklin: E pluribus unum (“out of many, one”).
The display’s omissions are many. There’s no mention of the U.S. Constitution. The 14th Amendment and civil rights legislation? Apparently not so important. Another omission, from Article VI: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.”

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