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Ten Commandments tour Washington
Media General News Service


July 05, 2005

WASHINGTON - The last thing anyone would call the nation's capital is the Holy City. Cynics assume that politicians give God short shrift - except in election years.

But in its grand architecture and treasured spaces, this federal city is anything but Godless. Surprisingly many sculptures, statues and monuments commemorate Biblical figures and invoke the deity.

You needn't go to Texas to see the Ten Commandments - or to any of the hundreds of other places around the country where movie director Cecil B. DeMille bankrolled Commandments monuments in the 1950s and 1960s. You can see representations of the Commandments on Capitol Hill, including at the Supreme Court.

You could even make a day of touring sites in Washington that evoke God and the Bible. These sculptures and statues, ornaments and designs have so long been a part of the cityscape that they're uncontroversial. They go largely unnoticed in the city that's busy making laws and money, sometimes simultaneously.

These salutes to religion tell us something about those who created the splendid buildings that house our national institutions. They tell us where we've come from on the controversial issue of religion in the public square.

These days, posting the Ten Commandments is a political issue, a way to draw lines between people, to separate Us from Them and vice versa. It wasn't always that way.

Imagine a tour of Washington in which the guide is none other than the Supreme Court's William Rehnquist. In a way, the chief justice gave us a tour when he wrote the court's opinion in the Van Orden v. Perry case.

In that case, a majority of justices found permissible a 6-foot granite monument outside the Texas State Capitol inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

Rehnquist wrote, "We need only look within our own courtroom" to see the Commandments. He shows us what he and the other justices have been seeing in the courtroom for 70 years:

"Since 1935, Moses has stood holding two tablets that reveal portions of the Ten Commandments written in Hebrew, among other lawgivers in the south frieze." The frieze is the decorative, horizontal band around the wall by the ceiling.

"Representations of the Ten Commandments adorn the metal gates lining the north and south sides of the courtroom as well as the doors leading into the courtroom. Moses also sits on the exterior east fagade of the building holding the Ten Commandments tablets," Rehnquist writes.

Rehnquist, 80 and ill with thyroid cancer, makes it seem like he's on a first-name basis with Moses, whom he notes was "a law giver" as well as a religious leader. As Rehnquist writes, it's Moses - not a statue of Moses - who has stood, holding the tablets in the courtroom since 1935. It's Moses - not a statue of Moses - who sits on the fagade, watching the world pass by.

Rehnquist has more to show us. Next he goes to the Library of Congress.

"A large statue of Moses holding the Ten Commandments, alongside a statue of the Apostle Paul, has overlooked the rotunda of the Library of Congress' Jefferson Building since 1897. And the Jefferson Building's Great Reading Room contains a sculpture of a woman beside the Ten Commandments with a quote above her from the Old Testament (Micah 6:8)."

He draws our attention to a medallion with two tablets representing the Commandments on the floor of the National Archives, a statue in the Justice Department called "The Spirit of Law" with two tablets representing the Commandments at its feet, and another sculpture representing the Commandments outside the Ronald Reagan Building.

Outside the federal courthouse in Washington is a "24-foot tall sculpture depicting among other things, the Ten Commandments and a cross.

"Moses is also prominently featured in the Chamber of the United States House of Representatives," he writes.

And, for those who want more, a footnote details other monuments and buildings with a religious motif. The Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln memorials invoke God. The inscription on the Washington Monument is translated from Latin as "Praise Be to God," and many stones in the monument contain Bible quotations.

Rehnquist lays out those geographical nuggets without much comment, except to say, "Our opinions, like our building, have recognized the role the Decalogue plays in American heritage" and while the Commandments are "of course" religious, they also have historical meaning, as the examples indicate.

Then he goes on to the Texas case. We're richer for the side trip.


Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief of Media General News Service.
Email mmercer(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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