Last week Gov. Mike Easley prepared to sign a character education bill that includes an amendment to allow public schools to display posters of the Ten Commandments. A similar bill was recently ruled unconstitutional in Kentucky, so North Carolina lawmakers added a provision stating that the commandments would be displayed alongside historical documents regarding civil behavior.
"We all like to believe our young people are taught respect, responsibility, and self-discipline at home," said the governor, "but the truth is some are not. If they do not learn it at the schoolhouse, the next stop may be the courthouse. This [bill] is an effort to ensure that every student who wants to learn will be in an environment that enables them to learn."
Laudable sentiments, for sure. So why would a Christian oppose such an amendment? Allow me to present a few reasons why.
The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... ." This protects Christians in worship, the running of private schools and fellowship in peace. It keeps our government out of the business of religion.
Yes, it's true that the words, "In God We Trust," appear on our currency; the Declaration of Independence mentions "Nature's God," "their Creator," "the Supreme Judge," and "the Protection of Divine Providence," and the Pledge of Allegiance includes the phrase "under God." America has a tradition of publicly acknowledging a Divine Power, which the current bill is meant to build upon. But in promoting the Ten Commandments, the bill endorses a specific religious tradition. The Ten Commandments are introduced with the sentence, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." The first commandment reads, "You shall have no other gods before me." This is a command from Yahweh, the Hebrew God, to not worship gods of other religions. Posting the Ten Commandments in public schools as part of character education would therefore seem to cross the line between a publicly theistic country and a theocracy.
Let's also remember that the Jewish Torah lists a different set of commandments from those found in Christian bibles, and that even some Christian versions differ. Which begs the question: What version of the Ten Commandments are we talking about? The bill passed by the legislature does not include a theological treatment of these discrepancies, which will leave local school boards with some tough issues to tackle. Do we expect North Carolina school boards to iron out the differences in religious beliefs that have caused thousands of years of conflict?
Proponents of the bill argue they're fighting a trend to erase Christianity from American history. They say the bill is simply reinforcing the public school system's right to include the Ten Commandments in their proper historical context. Of course that's OK. The Ten Commandments should be included as part of a Western Civilizations history class, just as a statue of the Buddha might be displayed while studying Asian cultures. But most public school teachers aren't trained in religious and spiritual instruction, and those who are probably don't share the same specific beliefs as all of the families of the children they teach. I believe most parents will agree that they don't want public school teachers explaining to their children the meaning of, "You shall have no other gods before me."
The push to pass a character education bill is an excellent sign that the state's politicians recognize good education begins with a disciplined, ordered educational environment. America has its heroes who exemplify our values: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., to name a few--Christians all. I happen to believe these men's strength and integrity grew out of their Christian faith. But I don't think we should teach that in a public school.