News Articles

Federal appeals court upholds Indiana Ten Commandments

CHICAGO (BP)–A federal appeals court has upheld a Ten Commandments display similar to one currently being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in Chicago, announced March 25 an Indiana county’s display that includes the Ten Commandments is constitutional. The split, three-judge panel said it sees no reason why the display of historical documents “must be purged of the Ten Commandments to survive constitutional scrutiny.”

The Seventh Circuit decision came as the Supreme Court prepares to deliver opinions in two cases regarding Ten Commandments displays. One involves the inclusion of the Ten Commandments in a display of historical documents in two Kentucky county courthouses, while the other focuses on a stand-alone monument on the state capitol grounds in Austin, Texas.

The justices heard oral arguments in both cases March 2. They are expected to rule on both cases in either a consolidated opinion or separate decisions before they adjourn this summer.

The latest appeals court ruling came in a case involving a “Foundations of American Law and Government Display” in a county administration building in Elkhart, Ind. The county commission approved the display of the documents, which were privately donated, in 2003. In addition to the Ten Commandments, other documents in the display included the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Mayflower Compact and the Magna Carta. The documents were the same size. Also included was an explanation of the historical importance of each document in the display.

A federal court ruled the inclusion of the Ten Commandments violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion. The presence of the Decalogue, the court said, failed to satisfy the three-part Lemon test’s first prong, which requires a government action to have a secular purpose.

The Lemon test has guided the Supreme Court’s decision-making in establishment clause cases since it was outlined in the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman opinion. According to the test, a government does not establish religion if its action has a secular purpose, does not promote or inhibit religion and does not entangle government excessively with religion.

The Seventh Circuit panel rejected the lower court’s reasoning, saying the display’s purposes are secular. It also denied the primary effect of the display was to advance religion.

“By virtue of the texts that are included and the content of the accompanying explanation, this display tells viewers that the American founders were inspired by a religious tradition that includes the Ten Commandments and that those values influenced the development of our law and government,” Judge Diane Sykes wrote. “A public acknowledgment by the government that the founders were religious people whose faith influenced the creation of this nation, its laws and its institutions of government is far different from saying that the government itself endorses religion.

“The establishment clause is not violated when government teaches about the historical role of religion.”

Liberty Counsel President Mathew Staver, who helped represent Elkhart County, applauded the ruling. “Displaying the Ten Commandments does not establish a religion,” he said. “Displaying the Ten Commandments acknowledges religion and the role of religion in America. Acknowledging religion is far different than establishing religion.”

Staver argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the Kentucky counties of McCreary and Pulaski in defending displays that included the Ten Commandments. Those exhibits also included such documents as the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. Originally, however, the Ten Commandments were displayed alone, before other documents were added.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the Ten Commandments’ place in the display violated the establishment clause.

In the Texas case, the Fifth Circuit Court ruled the 6-foot-tall monument on the Texas capitol grounds is constitutional. A private organization, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, donated the monument to the state in 1961.

The Seventh Circuit consists of federal district courts in the states of Illinois and Wisconsin as well as Indiana.

    About the Author

  • Staff