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Honor Thy Constitution

Ten Commandments Debate Highlights Congressional Lunacy

Naveen Sunkavally

After hearing that nearly two-thirds of the House favors letting states post up the Ten Commandments in schools, I felt it imperative to get my own copy and stick them up in my room. After all, given the historical tendency that these tablets have had in curbing violence in, for instance, the Middle East or during the Crusades, how could I go wrong? Commandment number ten, especially, struck a silent chord of lost morality within me: I will never again covet my neighbor’s manservant, maidservant, or cattle.

Patently unconstitutional, the amendment will most likely, thank God, die a quiet death in conference between the Senate and the House. Perhaps our reps up in Washington should try learning another set of ten commandments, collectively called the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...” Just goes to show how seriously our representatives are taking their jobs.

Surprisingly enough, I have run across people in mainstream America, i.e., outside Washington, who also favor posting the Ten Commandments in schools. Recently, the New York Times ran a column by a student who wrote about the difficulty encountered in starting an athiests’ club at his school; a letter-writer responded, saying that tearing down atheist posters is no more harmful or wrong than “sanitizing schools of the Ten Commandments.” The argument runs that faith has a public role, and the federal government’s allowing the mere sight of the Ten Commandments in classrooms will help promote morality and curb youth violence.

But faith is not a public matter. We have laws to make people socially responsible, and we inflict punishment for those who break the laws. People should not follow laws out of some underlying moral purpose but for a practical purpose: to ensure a stable society. “Do unto thy neighbor what you would want done unto you” is a principle more practical than moral. Of the Ten Commandments, three of them -- “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” -- are incorporated in the law. The other seven commandments are all a matter of personal choice and have no business in our schools.

Instead of forcing kids from all backgrounds to view in sanctuaries for objective learning the personal choices others may choose to make, why don’t we just paste up the relevant laws in our schools? (Sounds kind of silly put that way, doesn’t it?) We are not “sanitizing” our schools of the Ten Commandments, or of any religion, for that matter. By not respecting any religion, the state is acknowledging the supremacy of all religions, as long as those religions do not promote practices that break the law. If anything, posting the Ten Commandments up in schools will make society more divisive.

What’s more amusing than the Ten Commandments legislation itself is the manner in which it arose. The Ten Commandments legislation is an amendment to a bill calling for stricter juvenile crime provisions; that bill passed after hefty debate late in the evening on June 17, and it set the stage for debate over the matter of gun control legislation.

On the plate were two main alternate pieces of legislation. Current law states that federally licensed dealers at gun shows must perform background checks for buyers, but exempts private dealers at the same shows from performing such checks. One of the two proposed bills, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of Long Island and backed by the White House, mirrored a strict gun control bill passed a month before by the Senate (in a tie-break vote cast by Al Gore), and it called for all dealers to perform background checks. This bill was rejected 193-235.

The bill that passed, sponsored by Rep. John Dingell of Michigan and backed by the National Rifle Association, also requires private dealers to perform background checks, but reduces the number of gun shows covered by law and also cuts the time dealers have to make those checks, from three business days to 24 hours. This bill passed early June 18, 218-211, following heavy lobbying on the part of House majority whip Tom DeLay of Texas and President Clinton.

In effect, the Ten Commandments amendment served as an alternative to strict gun control legislation. Those voting for the Ten Commandments amendment felt their consciences eased, and then went along and voted for an easing of gun control. One’s conscience is expendable this way. The American people, in rare agreement that guns were out of control, expected their representatives to do something, and Congress came back with a sham, unconstitutional amendment that pandered to the religious right and at the same time granted concessions to the National Rifle Association. The House decided to compromise the lives of citizens for the pleasure of gun nuts to shoot up in their free time. Can you believe it? The House must really have mistaken NRA chief Charlton Heston for Moses. As New York Times Maureen Dowd put it: “Talk about profiles in courage.”

Meanwhile, the 2000 presidential race has shaped up quite nicely regarding the Ten Commandments issue. Leading Republican, reformed alcoholic, and compassionate conservative George W. Bush actually endorsed the amendment, saying, “I have no problem with the Ten Commandments posted on the wall of every public place.” What a nut. Senator from New Jersey and Democratic candidate Bill Bradley played it safe, saying the amendment would probably be proved Unconstitutional in the courts, while Al Gore wisely didn’t say much at all. As far as I’m concerned, Bush just struck out looking.

What can the public do to prevent the House from doing such ridiculous things in the future? Sadly, not much. What we really need is an influx of youth into Congress, but the barriers to entry (i.e., money, money, and money) are too great. Our representative democracy is not as democratic as it purports to be. All we can do is look up how reps voted for various pieces of legislation, and then systematically vote the panderers out of office. And before the next voting cycle comes around, we can also eagerly hope that Tom DeLay is exposed as a closet klepto who slept with his neighbor’s wife.