Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether a monument to the Ten Commandments should be displayed on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol building. While the court hasn't made a decision about this case yet, the public certainly has. When asked in a Feb. 25-27 Gallup Poll* if the Supreme Court should or should not allow the display in Texas, 76% of Americans say the display should be allowed, compared with 21% who say it should not.
The poll also asked respondents how they'd personally feel about a monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of their own state Capitols. Only 20% currently say they believe it would be inappropriate, while a majority (56%) feel it would be appropriate and 24% say it wouldn't matter to them either way**.
Since 1999, Gallup has frequently measured sentiment on public displays of the Ten Commandments. Americans are consistently in favor of allowing displays and against removing existing displays. In 1999, Gallup asked people whether they favored or opposed allowing displays of the Ten Commandments in public schools. Seventy-four percent favored such displays; only 24% opposed them.
Other questions have produced similar results in the past six years. In September 2003, Gallup asked a similar question about displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools or government buildings. Seventy percent approved, 29% disapproved. That year, the issue was whether to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from an Alabama courthouse. Americans were solidly against a court decision ordering the removal of the monument at that time -- just 19% approved of the ruling, while 77% disapproved.
Ten Commandments as a Symbol
Americans tend to be conscious of the need to separate church and state -- but we're also highly attuned to the power of cultural symbols. The Constitution is a compelling symbol of patriotism for most Americans even though many don't know that the first 10 amendments are called the Bill of Rights. Similarly, the Ten Commandments are typically placed in public places as a symbol of morality, largely abstracted from the specific trappings of any particular religious tradition. For many, the value of such symbolism may outweigh more esoteric arguments about religious freedom -- particularly because the vast majority of Americans identify as Christians anyway.
Whatever the case, the Ten Commandments debate -- like government support of faith-based charities and the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance -- is proving to be an ongoing litmus test for the role of religion in American public life.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 526 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 25-27, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.
**Results are based on telephone interviews with 482 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 25-27, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.