Recently the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court was removed from office for violating judicial ethics. He had refused to obey a federal court ruling to remove from the courthouse rotunda a massive sculpture of the Ten Commandments, which he had installed there shortly after his election as judge. This story has attracted a lot of attention, since it points out a tension between our judicial system, based on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the laws of the Bible. Most Americans have a dual allegiance to the claims of both authorities, the civil and the religious, and are disturbed and perplexed when these authorities come into conflict. This dilemma is not easily resolved, though most people (including the U.S. Supreme Court) agree that in this case the court made the right decision in ordering the removal. The principle of the separation of church and state is so central to our democracy that the court’s action in this case was a no-brainer.
But let’s imagine what it would be like if the decision had gone the other way or, even more imaginatively, if the courts adopted the Ten Commandments as the law of the land. What would life be like in America? The result would be unsettling, more so than even the judge’s supporters might think. The major problems come at the beginning and the end of the Decalogue, in the judicial implementation of the First, Second and Tenth commandments.