Monday, June 27, 2005

"Supreme Court" rules against Ten Commandments

The Associated Press
Updated: 11:06 a.m. ET June 27, 2005
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Monday struck down certain Ten Commandments displays inside courthouses but gave more leeway when such exhibits are on the grounds of public property.
The justices found that a six-foot granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol does not cross the line between church and state.
In an earlier ruling, however, the justices held that two courthouse exhibits in Kentucky crossed the line between separation of church and state because they promoted a religious message.

In that 5-4 decision, the court declined to prohibit all displays in court buildings or on government property. Justices left legal wiggle room, saying that some displays — like their own courtroom frieze — would be permissible if they’re portrayed neutrally in order to honor the nation’s legal history.
But framed copies in two Kentucky courthouses went too far in endorsing religion, the court held.
“The touchstone for our analysis is the principle that the First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,” Justice David Souter wrote for the majority.
“When the government acts with the ostensible and predominant purpose of advancing religion, it violates the central Establishment clause value of official religious neutrality,” he said.
Souter was joined in his opinion by other members of the liberal bloc — Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, as well as Reagan appointee Sandra Day O’Connor, who provided the swing vote.
Scalia writes dissentIn a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that Ten Commandments displays are a legitimate tribute to the nation’s religious and legal history.
Government officials may have had a religious purpose when they originally posted the Ten Commandments display by itself in 1999. But their efforts to dilute the religious message since then by hanging other historical documents in the courthouses made it constitutionally adequate, Scalia said.
He was joined in his opinion by Chief William Rehnquist, as well as Justice Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
“In the court’s view, the impermissible motive was apparent from the initial displays of the Ten Commandments all by themselves: When that occurs: the Court says, a religious object is unmistakable,” he wrote. “Surely that cannot be.”
“The Commandments have a proper place in our civil history,” Scalia added.
Earlier oral argumentsThe justices heard oral arguments in the Kentucky and Texas cases last March.
The Bush administration, via acting Solicitor General Paul Clement, argued against a strict First Amendment wall between church and state.

Key 2004-2005 Supreme Court casesTen Commandments displays should be allowed on government property because they pay tribute to America’s religious and legal history, he argued in court. “The idea of having a fence around the Ten Commandments to make clear the state has nothing to do with it, I think that is bending it too far,” said
David Friedman, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who is challenging courthouse displays in Kentucky, countered: “An assertion that the Ten Commandments is THE source, THE foundation of our legal system ... that is simply wrapping the Ten Commandments in the flag, and that’s endorsement.”
In their comments and questions from the bench, justices were reluctant to adopt a blanket ban on such displays. They struggled to formulate a clear constitutional rule that could determine the fate of thousands of religious symbols on public property around the country, including one in their own courtroom featuring Moses holding the sacred tablets.
Justice Antonin Scalia noted that legislative proclamations and prayer invoking God’s name are permissible. “I don’t see why the one is good and the other is bad,” he said.
Texas case backgroundDuring oral arguments in the Texas case, Erwin Chemerinsky, a lawyer representing a man who sought the removal of the tablet, told the justices the display is a “religious symbol.” The prominence of the display on the capitol grounds and the fact that so many of the commandments deal with God “does promote religion,” he maintained.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, in his court filing, wrote that “countless monuments, medallions, plaques, sculptures, seals, frescoes, and friezes — including, of course, the Supreme Court’s own courtroom frieze — commemorate the Decalogue. Nothing in the Constitution requires these historic artifacts to be chiseled away or erased.”
Chemerinsky countered that “the government’s symbolic endorsement of religion is most obvious from the content of the monument itself. In large letters, the monument proclaims ’I AM the LORD thy God.”’
Ten Commandments monuments are common in town squares, courthouses and other government-owned land around the country. At issue was whether they violate the First Amendment ban on any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” or simply represent a secular tribute to America’s legal heritage.
The question has sparked dozens of heated legal battles, including one in Alabama by Roy Moore. He lost his job as chief justice a year ago after defying a federal order to remove a 5,300-pound Ten Commandments monument he had installed in the state courthouse.

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