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Can’t Legislate Morality? Time for a new Cliché

I was watching the local Fox news channel in Baltimore yesterday morning, and they had invited Ed Norris to speak about the ballot initiatives passed in Washington state and Colorado legalizing marijuana. He was in favor of those initiatives, for various reasons, and made a statement that is so incredulously stupid I had to laugh. Mr. Norris was the Baltimore City Chief of Police from 2000-2002. He was more notoriously known for his 2004 conviction for using public funds to lavish gifts on his mistress. His comment this morning made me snort in derision: “You can’t legislate morality.” Really? I seriously beg to differ. We can, do and should legislate morality, and have for centuries.

Of course, I’ve heard this statement before, and it always amazes me at the foolishness of it. It is usually used for topics like drug legalization, or for legalizing prostitution or abortion. The self-righteous rhetoric that goes along with it is “how dare you conservatives even think about pawning your religious morality off on others?”

So by their logic, since they don’t want my religious morals affecting everyone’s laws, all laws that are based on morality need to be overturned. You know, the ones that outlaw murder and killing, stealing, rape and assault of others and perjury. Then of course, the lesser laws: traffic laws, land use laws, regulation of all type, etc. would have to go since they are all based on the biggies. Drive responsibly so no one gets killed; nope, it’s out since not killing people is a “moral law”, and we can’t legislate morality. Let the anarchy commence!

I posted on my Facebook something about the Norris statement and how ridiculous it was, and a friend responded that laws outlawing murder, theft, burglary, rape, child abuse and perjury aren’t based on morality, but “on protecting the rights of others. They just happen to coincide with most people’s morals.” My response: “Bull.” They were based on morality.

How? Every major religion, and minor ones too, made rules about human interaction and treatment, and most of them pre-date codified law. I will discuss the five biggest religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, with the caveat that 1) formalized religions all have scripture or religious writings with moral codes; and 2) I am in no way saying that atheists in general are devoid of moral codes or guidance or that religious people always follow it.

In the five that I am including here, all have moral guides that include the following absolutes: no killing or murder; no stealing; no abuse of others and no lying. Of course there are others, but they usually deal with the specifics of the belief system and not moral absolutes on how to treat other people.

Christianity and Judaism share the 10 Commandments. Exodus 20: 1-17 enumerates them, and verses 13, 15 and 16 deal specifically with morals that are the basis of law: “You shall not murder. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

Islam has a code that is very similar to the 10 Commandments, and one specifically says: “Do not kill unjustly: Nor take life – which Allah has made sacred – except for just cause. And if anyone is slain wrongfully, we have given his heir authority (to demand qisas or to forgive): but let him not exceed bounds in the matter of taking life; for he is helped (by the Law).” (Quran 17:33).

Buddhism has the Noble Eightfold Path which includes right speech, right action and right livelihood, and the Five Precepts which include abstaining from taking life, abstaining from taking what is not given, abstaining from sexual misconduct, and abstaining from false speech.

Hinduism has yamas which includes non-violence, truth in word and thought, and non-stealing. I’m thinking that pretty well sets out the moral basis of don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t harm others. Hindu texts on the subject go back thousands of years, as do Judeo-Christian, pre-dating codified law.

All of these scripturally based codes were in place long before the US Constitution or any state or federal laws or regulations, British law, or various European law that are the basis of our own system of law. I would also point out that these laws exist in places where individual rights and freedoms, as my friend pointed out, are scarce or non-existent. Islamic countries have the Quran to spell out don’t kill, but honor killings are rampant and the rights of women and non-Muslims are next to non-existent. I daresay that China and North Korea, both countries that have abysmal records for human rights, have laws against murder, stealing, rape and perjury.

To say that morality isn’t the basis of our laws is just misguided and uneducated. Making law based on the moral concepts above is not wrong. My thoughts on repealing the laws against drugs is a subject for another day, but any law that morally protects the life and liberty of people from the poor choices of others is not wrong. Just don’t fool yourself as to the basis of it…

Image: Hammurabi marble bas-relief; chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives in the United States Capitol; sculpture by Thomas Hudson Jones; public domain

Suzanne Olden

Suzanne Reisig Olden is a Catholic Christian, Conservative, married mother of two, who loves God, family and country in that order. She lives northwest of Baltimore, in Carroll County, Maryland. She graduated from Villa Julie College/Stevenson University with a BS in Paralegal Studies and works as a paralegal for a franchise company, specializing in franchise law and intellectual property. Originally from Baltimore, and after many moves, she came home to raise her son and daughter, now high school and college aged, in her home state. Suzanne also writes for The Firebreathing Conservative website ( and hopes you'll come visit there as well for even more discussion of conservative issues.

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