WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court will take on the controversial issue of the public display of the Ten Commandments nearly a quarter of a century after it last ventured into that arena.
The high court announced Oct. 12 it would review lower-court rulings involving displays of the Ten Commandments on government property in Kentucky and Texas. Review of the decisions was granted separately, and oral arguments in the cases are expected to be heard in February, possibly on the same day.
It marked the first time the justices have agreed to such a case since 1980, when they ruled a Kentucky law requiring the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public school classrooms was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court’s willingness to return to the issue comes at a time when district courts and appeals courts in the federal judiciary are deeply divided. Four appeals courts have ruled in favor of Ten Commandments displays, while three appeals courts have decided they are unconstitutional, according to Liberty Counsel, which litigates church-state cases.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, welcomed the fact the high court “has finally decided it has to make a ruling. The Supreme Court’s job is to adjudicate lower court rulings that conflict with one another.”
In the case out of Kentucky, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the inclusion of the Ten Commandments in a display of historical documents in two county courthouses is unconstitutional.
Framed copies of the Ten Commandments were hung alone in courthouses in McCreary and Pulaski counties. After the ACLU of Kentucky challenged the displays, historical documents -– eventually including the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and Magna Carta –- were added. A panel of the Sixth Circuit still called for removal of the Ten Commandments from the displays in a 2-1 decision in December 2003.
In the case from Texas, meanwhile, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court ruled unanimously in November 2003 that a stand-alone monument of the Ten Commandments on the state capitol grounds in Austin is constitutional. The Fraternal Order of Eagles donated and paid for the granite monument, and it was accepted by the Texas legislature in 1961. The six-foot-tall monument stands with other monuments outside the capitol building.
Mat Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, called the decision to review cases involving the Ten Commandments “long overdue.” The rulings could be the “blockbuster church-state cases of the term,” especially since they could involve the proper interpretation of the First Amendment, he said.
“The Ten Commandments belong in a display of historical documents important to the foundation of our country,” said Staver, whose organization is representing the Kentucky counties. “American history simply would be incomplete without reference [to] or acknowledgment of the significant role religion, including the Ten Commandments, has played in our founding, history and legal jurisprudence.”
Forecasting the Supreme Court’s decisions in the cases is a challenge, Land said.
“Given the previous rulings by this court, it is impossible to predict whether it will strike down both displays, approve both displays, or accept the donated display and reject the government-sponsored display,” Land said. “This is an issue where vast majorities of American would have the court approve both displays.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, however, called for the high court to reject both displays.
“Religious symbols belong in houses of worship, not courthouses, city halls and public schools,” AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said.
The Kentucky case is McCreary County v. ACLU, and the Texas case is Van Orden v. Perry.
The announcement of the court’s review in the cases followed by only a week its decision not to accept an appeal by former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has been a leading figure in the public display of the Ten Commandments.
Moore became well-known for placing a 5,300-pound, granite monument that included the Ten Commandments in Alabama’s judicial building after he became chief justice. When he refused to obey a federal judge’s order to remove the monument, action ensued to oust Moore from his position.
The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission removed Moore from office in November 2003, ruling he had violated the state’s code of judicial ethics by failing to move the display at the order of the judge. The Supreme Court announced Oct. 4 it would not review Moore’s appeal of his ouster.