A Constitutional Take on Commandments Debate

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

In response to a late August Gallup Poll question asking, "Do you approve or disapprove of a federal court decision ordering an Alabama court to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from public display in its building?", 77% of Americans expressed disapproval of the federal court decision. A follow-up question in a Sept. 8-10 Gallup Poll* tested the persuasiveness of arguments being made by those on both sides of the issue to see if the basic responses would be affected. In the follow-up question, respondents were asked which came closer to their view: that "the Ten Commandments monument should be removed from public display because of the U.S. Constitution's provision about the separation of church and state," or that "the Ten Commandments monument should not be removed from public display because of the U.S. Constitution's provision about freedom of religion."

The overall results were almost identical to those of the first question: 77% of respondents said they think the monument should not be removed, while 21% felt it should be removed. The similar findings suggest either that respondents to the first question already had a grasp of the constitutional arguments being made by people on both sides of the issue, or that reminding respondents of these makes no difference to their understanding of the issue.

When further broken down by demographics, results to the constitutionally framed question are not surprising. More conservatives than liberals, more Republicans than Democrats, and more churchgoers than non-churchgoers think the monument should stay.

But when responses were examined according to the respondent's likelihood to vote and likelihood to closely follow national politics, support for not removing the Ten Commandments monument varies significantly. Those who always or nearly always vote and those who closely follow national politics are much less likely to think the monument should stay than those who rarely or never vote and those who do not closely follow national politics. This difference holds even among more educated respondents; college graduates who say they follow national politics are more likely than grads who do not to say they favor removing the statue.


These findings may not be conclusive, but they do raise some provocative questions:

  • To what degree is the public's reaction to this issue emotional rather than rational? Those who are more involved in the political process (voting, interest in politics) are less likely to think the monument should stay. Does this mean that these individuals' opinions are more informed and less emotional about the issue than those who are not involved? Perhaps, but even those who are politically involved favor not removing the monument by a substantial majority.
  • Does "freedom of religion" trump "separation of church and state" as a constitutional tenet? Apparently so, at least in this instance. In every demographic segment, a solid majority of respondents favored leaving the Ten Commandments monument, attaching greater importance to the idea of freedom of religion.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,025 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 8-10, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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