Memo To Louisiana

Thou Shalt Not Rewrite The Ten Commandments

Legislators in Louisiana wanted to pass a bill allowing for the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings but weren’t sure which version of the Decalogue to endorse. After some deliberation, however, they came upon a creative solution: Just do a rewrite.

The House Government Affairs Com­mittee was discussing the matter last month when a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out that the language of Senate Bill 476 included the Protestant version of the Commandments and could be offensive to Catholics and Jews.

The ACLU’s Michael Malec also noted that the bill’s version said, “Thou shalt not commit murder” when the common form is “Thou shalt not kill.”

But no worries. “We can change that,” responded Rep. Peppi Bruneau of New Orleans. Bruneau also recommended making a spelling alteration in the fifth commandment, where the word “honor” was for some reason anglicized to “honour.”

However, other problems remained. The bill lists the Second Commandment as a prohibition on graven images, a passage that is not found in the Roman Catholic version. In fact, the Catholic version lists the commandments in an entirely different order.

In frustration, Bruneau ordered the committee staff to “find a good version” of the Commandments for use in the bill.

An aide to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. James David Cain (R-Dry Creek), later told reporters she didn’t know what version of the Commandments was in the bill because it was patterned on a measure from Texas.

“It’s kind of a distinction without a difference,” she said, thus casually dismissing centuries of religious wrangling over the Decalogue’s wording.

All of this underscores the difficulty with laws promoting the Ten Command­ments. There are different versions, and such measures force lawmakers to side with one over others.

The bill also calls for posting the May­flower Compact, even though the theocratic regime the Compact inspired is far removed from the republican system of government our Constitution mandates. In addition, the bill lauds the Northwest Ordi­­­nance, a rather obscure document frequently hailed by the Religious Right because it contains some religious language.

All of this is ridiculous, especially since it comes at a time when Pelican State politicians ought to be focused on addressing the damage caused by Hur­ricane Katrina. If Louisiana legislators really want citizens of that state to understand American law, they are looking at the wrong sources. Instead of hanging Ten Commandments, lawmakers should consider posting another famous “ten” – the Bill of Rights. In fact, posting the entire Constitution and all of its amendments would be more than welcome.