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Federal judge to hear Ten Commandments cases

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal judge in Kentucky is scheduled to re-hear a cluster of cases April 6 involving the public display of the Ten Commandments, CNSNews.com reported Monday, April 2.

At stake is not only a refined prescription for how the Ten Commandments may be displayed in publicly owned spaces, but possible contempt of court charges and jail time for the local officials who orchestrated the display.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky for the second time is challenging the displays on constitutional grounds, alleging that they violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The ACLU won the first round when U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman ruled in May 2000 that the displays had the “overwhelming effect of endorsing religion” and ordered that they be taken down.

It all started in 1999 when local officials posted framed representations of the Ten Commandments in the lobbies of two county court houses in Pulaski and McCreary counties, respectively, and in the Harlan Country Public School District office and school hallways.

“It came to me, there’s something we missed in our history and culture here: We didn’t hang the Ten Commandments,” Pulaski County Judge Darrell BeShears told a Kentucky paper last year.

BeShears, a Vietnam veteran, reportedly thought of posting the Ten Commandments after noticing their absence in the county’s 1999 bicentennial celebration.

Following the ACLU court challenge, the local officials, on the advice of legal counsel, altered the displays several times in an attempt to bring them within constitutional boundaries. Presently, the displays feature not only the Ten Commandments but other documents associated with America’s founding, such as the Declaration of Independence.

“It’s really not an establishment of religion just by acknowledging religion’s influence in our history,” explained Erik Stanley, litigation counsel for Liberty Counsel, the public interest law firm defending the displays.

“One of the arguments [the ACLU is] making is that the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed at all, no matter how they are presented,” Stanley told CNSNews.com. “They even went so far as to make the argument that the Ten Commandments played no part in the foundation of our system of government.”

“It’s historically inaccurate to call the Ten Commandments the basis of our code of laws,” said Jeff Vessels, executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky. “They are in fact based on earlier laws that pre-dated Christianity quite a bit. They are not a historical document in that sense.

“The Ten Commandments … were derived primarily from the Code of Hammurabi, which is an early compilation of Babylonian law, and about two dozen passages from Exodus, which are virtually identical to sections of that code,” Vessels claimed.

Scholars have debated the origin of the Ten Commandments and their link to Hammurabi, who was king of Babylon between 1792 B.C. and 1750 B.C., according to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

However, historical references to the Ten Commandments and their role in the American founding are less questionable.

Former President John Quincy Adams, according to the compilation of “Letters of John Quincy Adams, to His Son, on the Bible and Its Teachings,” published in 1850, wrote, “The law given from Sinai was a civil and municipal, as well as a moral and religious, code; it contained many statutes … of universal application — laws essential to the existence of men in society, and most of which have been enacted by every nation which ever professed any code of laws.”

“If you looked at the display of all the documents [in the Kentucky cases], you could easily point out which one doesn’t fit,” the ACLU’s Vessels told CNSNews.com. “When you have things like a constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Magna Charta, those are quite different from the religious doctrine represented in the Ten Commandments.”

Stanley, however, expressed confidence that the outcome of the April 6 hearing will be favorable to his clients because of a March 16 ruling by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which would have jurisdiction over the Kentucky cases if they are appealed.

The appeals court ruled that Ohio’s state motto, “With God All Things Are Possible,” is constitutional. “What the case essentially says is the government is not raising taxes to support religion,” Stanley said. “The government is not throwing its weight behind one particular sect or another.”

Stanley also is looking to an earlier Supreme Court ruling allowing Christmastime nativity displays as long as they are part of other types of displays, like Frosty the Snowman. “Constitutional scholars call this the ‘jurisprudence of interior decorating,'” Stanley said.

The ACLU offers a different legal prediction. Vessels said he does not believe the Ohio case, for example, is relevant to the Kentucky cases. “The courts have allowed what they call ‘ceremonial deism,’ which includes even things like a very secularized prayer before a legislative body convenes,” Vessels said. “So I would put the Ohio state motto in that same sort of category.”
Hall is a staff writer with CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Christine Hall