The Ten Commandments – An Analysis

It’s often said that the Ten Commandments are an important part of the foundation of American law. But how many of them are legally binding obligations under modern American law? (Let’s focus on the list in Exodus, Chapter 20, King James Version.)

  1. “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

Not legally enforceable; in fact, the 1st Amendment would prohibit the government from enforcing this.

  1. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.”

Not legally enforceable, neither as to the prohibition on graven images, nor as to the visiting of the fathers’ sins upon the sons.

  1. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

Some states have enacted blasphemy laws, though they’ve generally been limited to public blasphemy. They are not enforced today.

  1. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work.”

This is generally not the law today; some states still require some businesses to be closed Sundays, but there’s no general prohibition on work on the Sabbath.

  1. “Honour thy father and thy mother.”

Not legally enforceable.

  1. “Thou shalt not kill.”

Legally enforceable, with the usual qualifiers. (military, law enforcement, self defense, etc.)

  1. “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

In practice, not legally enforced, except in the military. Some states do have criminal prohibitions on adultery.

There are plausible arguments for enforcing these prohibitions, and also for considering adultery in various civil contexts (in property settlements in divorce and the like).

  1. “Thou shalt not steal.”

Legally enforceable.

  1. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”

Legally enforceable, at least in a wide range of contexts (such as perjury and libel).

  1. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”

Not legally enforceable — can you imagine a law prohibiting coveting?

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