Jews object to posting 10 Commandments

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jewish and civil liberties groups have criticized a resolution passed by the Tennessee Senate urging homes, businesses, schools and places of worship to post and observe the Ten Commandments.

The groups objected to the action as an unconstitutional move toward state sponsorship of religion.

"Its unconstitutionality is a no-brainer," said Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of the American Jewish Congress.

"The only part of this case that's going to require any thought is who can bring it" to court for a challenge, he added. "Once you get over that threshold, you can stop thinking."

The measure, touted by the religious right and conservative legislators as a way to reaffirm moral standards, overwhelmingly passed the state Senate in a 27-1 vote and now awaits approval by the House.

State Sen. Steven Cohen, the Senate's only Jewish member, cast the lone dissenting vote.

"It's not only a violation of the law but of the spirit upon which this country was based," said Cohen, a 14-year legislator from Memphis.

"The government's job is not to suggest, promote or choose religious thought to be recommended to the people. If we let the government choose the Ten Commandments, we could next let the government choose the Koran, the Lord's Prayer or the crucifix, and that's not the government's choice."

Tennessee's Jewish community, meanwhile, is still debating how to respond to the state Senate's action.

"The Jewish community in middle Tennessee is very supportive of religious freedom and of the Ten Commandments," said Frank Boehm, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Nashville.

"This is the kind of issue that most people believe should be taught in the homes. Whether to make it a law is a sensitive issue, and something we're still debating."

The resolution refers to declining moral standards and notes that the Founding Fathers "respected the place that the Ten Commandments occupy in the history of law and government."

Charles Burson, the state attorney general, said on the day of the vote last week that the resolution violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from making laws "respecting an establishment of religion."

Gov. Don Sundquist, a Republican serving his first term, has not yet indicated whether he would sign the resolution.

Through their action, Cohen said, Tennessee's legislators sent a clear message to the religious right.

"They're saying we're with you and we're for God, regardless of whether we violate our oath of office and are against the Constitution," Cohen said.

To pass the resolution "was like a brownshirt-type fervor," with the Senate communicating "the idea that we didn't care what the law was and that we have right to change it and stand above it."

Stern agreed that the Senate vote shows the hubris of lawmakers determined to defy what they apparently see as "nonsense handed down by the Supreme Court about separation between church and state."

It's "sort of an in-your-face vote," he said. "That's troubling because you have lawmakers that don't see themselves bound by law."

The resolution on the Ten Commandments is one of several pieces of legislation conservative lawmakers and the religious right are attempting to push through the Tennessee Legislature.

A committee in the Tennessee Senate last week approved a bill that would permit school boards to dismiss teachers who teach evolution theory as a fact rather than a theory.

Other pending legislation deals with fetal rights and the promotion of public prayer.