Ten Commandments Displays in Surprising Places

There’s a nationwide effort to re-introduce Americans to the Ten Commandments via billboards. “The newest posting is on a billboard near Shubert, Pa. Earlier billboards were posted in Las Vegas, Nashville, Jacksonville, Los Angeles and Branson, Mo.”

What many Americans do not know that there are copies of the Ten Commandments in buildings and courthouses across America.

Supreme Court Chamber in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Chief Justice Warren Burger noted in his majority opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Supreme Court Chamber in which legal cases related to religion are “heard is decorated with a notable and permanent-not seasonal-symbol of religion: Moses with the Ten Commandments.”1

In addition to the Supreme Court, state courtrooms and capitals across our land have housed similar displays for decades without any legal challenges or constitutional prohibitions. A ceiling mural in the courtroom of the Supreme Court Chamber in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shows a seated Moses holding the two tables of the law. There are two depictions of the Ten Commandments at the New York Supreme Court Building.

One of the most interesting displays is a sixteen-panel mural painted by Violet Oakley that graces the walls of the courtroom of the Supreme Court in the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The panels show the progress of law, “beginning with the panel of Divine Law, over the entrance door, and ending with the Spirit of the Law, so beautifully symbolized by Christ walking upon a troubled sea filled with sinking ships of strife.”

State Supreme Court in the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Another panel shows Jesus, on the Sermon on the Mount, revealing the Christian idea of Law. One of the most striking panels displays, in the words of the artist, “Moses hewing out the Ten Commandments upon Mount Sinai, under divine inspiration.”2

In a summary statement of the relationship between Divine Law, Natural Law, the Common Law, and the Law of Reason, the artist includes panels that are illuminated with quotations from the introduction to Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. Blackstone and his Commentaries had the profoundest impact on American law. According to Blackstone, “Human laws are only declaratory of an act in subordination to Divine Law.”

At the ceremony of the Oakley murals, George Wharton Pepper, former United States Senator, jurist, and professor of law, offered the following comments: “It is in this room that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania will sit to determine and interpret each of these rules of life as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania can take account of. As the Judges discharge their solemn duty, I have no doubt that their delicate task will be more wisely performed because of the witness of the walls.” Pepper’s words indicate that the murals are more than historical representations of abstract ancient moral law. They are viewed as “rules of life.” He went on to say: “When citizens coming into the open court perceive that they are really entering a sacred place it may be that they, too, will be dominated by the sense of order and will yield themselves to the spell which the artist’s genius is able to lay upon them.”3

How can the ACLU maintain that displays of the Ten Commandments violate the First Amendment when these Christian depictions of law were commissioned, sanctioned, and presided over by the State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in the 1920s? If the ACLU and today’s courts are consistent, these murals will have to be covered or painted over. When a copy of the mural showing Moses with the Ten Commandments was hung in a Pennsylvania high school, the following note accompanied it: “What an irony that the Ten Commandments are displayed so prominently in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, yet such displays are prohibited and challenged in classrooms and courthouses across our Nation.”

  1. U.S. Supreme Court Lynch v. Donnelley, 465 U.S. 668 (decided March 5, 1984), II.C. []
  2. Violet Oakley, The Holy Experiment: Our Heritage from William Penn—1644-1944 (Philadelphia: Gogslea Studio Publications, 1950), 111. The images can also be seen in a brochure made available by contacting the Prothonotary’s Office, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, 468 City Hall, Philadelphia, PA 19107. []
  3. George Wharton Pepper quoted in Violet Oakley, The Holy Experiment: Our Heritage from William Penn—1644-1944 (Philadelphia: Gogslea Studio Publications, 1950), 106. Also see A Sacred Challenge: Violet Oakley and the Pennsylvania Capitol Murals (Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee, 2003). []