Do 10 Commandments displays involve private speech in an open forum like an opinion in a town meeting?  Or is the permanent placement of a Ten Commandments monument on public land a form of...

Do 10 Commandments displays involve private speech in an open forum like an opinion in a town meeting? 

Or is the permanent placement of a Ten Commandments monument on public land a form of government speech that is not open to everyone?


Public displays of the Ten Commandments have long been a magnet for litigation.  In Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U.S. ___ (2009), the US Supreme Court decided what restrictions

, if any, cities and towns may enforce against the placement of private monuments on public property.  The case turns on what kind of speech the monument dispute implies.

Expert Answers
Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I am not sure that this issue is being framed properly in your question, since the placement of the Ten Commandments has nothing to do with public or private speech. If the Ten Commandments are placed on private property, there is no case, and if they are placed on public property, the issue is whether their placement violates the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits the state (or any level of government) from acting in a way that establishes a particular religion or religions.  Of course, the First Amendment also provides that government may not interfere with the practice of any religion, so there is understandably tension between those aspects of the Amendment.

These are difficult cases for the courts to decide because if the Ten Commandments are not permitted to be displayed, there is some argument that people's religious beliefs are being interfered with. However, notice that if the government declines to display the Ten Commandments, there is nothing to stop people from following them or from displaying them privately.  But if the Ten Commandments are displayed, then there is a good argument that the state is promoting a particular religion or religions, in this case, Judaism and Christianity, both of which subscribe to these Commandments.  Is it reasonable for government to display a symbol of two particular religions when we have so many religions in the United States?  What are Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims supposed to make of the promotion of Judeo-Christian writings by the government?  Public property belongs to all the taxpayers, not just Christians and Jews. Should all taxpayers have to pay for and to endure the promotion of a few religions over all the other religions?

I have provided you with a link to a series of Supreme Court cases that address these First Amendment issues, and you will notice that they concern the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, but do not focus on public or private speech.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This issue is one that has no objective answer.  No one can really say as a matter of fact whether such displays are private speech.

There are a few things to consider here:

  • Who is placing the 10 commandments?  If it is a private group placing them, the placement could possibly be private speech.
  • Even more importantly, though, you have to ask whether other opinions are welcome in that "open forum."  In other words, is it really an "open forum?'  Governments are generally not allowed to prefer one message (Christianity) over another (say, Satanism).
  • If the government is placing the commandments, are they in a context that is solely religious?  If they are in with the Magna Carta and the Constitution that might be okay because the point of such a display would not be solely religious.

So, this is a pretty difficult question that the judicial branch has to deal with more and more these days.

mkcapen1 | Student

Having the Ten Commandments resurrected in a public place is quite a storm brewing issue.  Many citizens feel that it is their right to have the Commandments placed where their children and others are subject to view them.  They have determined that the commandments represent moral decision and that it is important that people are exposed to them.

"There is a growing desire to display the Ten Commandments in all public venues because they traditionally have represented a moral floor for acceptable behavior and served as an antecedent to obedience to law."

The Supreme Court in reviewing its doctrines and laws determine the following;

"The secular application of the Ten Commandments is clearly seen in its adoption as the fundamental legal code of Western Civilization and the Common Law of the United States." Id. § 158.178 (2). The Ten Commandments had no legislative value and they were ordered to be removed from schools and public properties in Kentucky.

In looking at the issue based on freedom of speech, the right to speak freely has not been taken away by the removal of the Ten Commandments but rather by the inability for educators to speak of their own beliefs.  However, educators have also the responsibility of molding the generation they teach and can not violate the doctrines and beliefs of the children's parents.