US Supreme Court rules on Ten Commandments displays

Not in Kentucky courthouses

by Pam Sheppard, AiG–USA

June 27, 2005

Today (June 27), the US Supreme Court ruled that the framed copies of the Ten Commandments hanging in two Kentucky courthouses violate the separation of church and state established in the First Amendment. (It also ruled that the 6-foot granite monument of the Ten Commandments could remain standing on the grounds of the Texas capitol, but not inside the building.)

Sending mixed signals in these highly anticipated cases, the Court said displays of the Ten Commandments—ironically like ones found in its own courtroom1—are not “inherently unconstitutional.” But the justices ruled that each exhibit demands scrutiny to determine whether it goes too far in promoting religion2 According to the high court, some displays inside courthouses are permissible if they are portrayed neutrally to honor the nation’s legal history.

In its ruling on the Kentucky case, McCreary County v. ACLU, the 5-4 majority determined that the two framed copies of the Ten Commandments went too far in promoting a religious message and violated the so-called separation of church and state.

According to a report by the First Amendment Center,3 the two Kentucky counties originally posted the Ten Commandments alone but then later added other documents (all mentioning God or the Bible) after a lawsuit was filed challenging the display. When the second display was also ruled unconstitutional, county officials expanded the display to include a variety of documents (Declaration of Independence, national motto, etc.). But the court did not buy it, and ruled that the “predominate purpose for the display was religious.”

According to a USA Today article, framed copies in two Kentucky courthouses went too far in endorsing religion, the court held. Those courthouse displays are unconstitutional because their religious content is overemphasized, the justices said.

In contrast to the ruling on the Kentucky case, the Texas monument, one of 17 historical displays on a 22-acre lot, was determined to be a legitimate tribute to the nation’s legal and religious history.

So, how did the court arrive at this decision? Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist discussed the complexity of this decision:

“No exact formula can dictate a resolution in fact-intensive cases such as this. … The determinative factor here, however, is that 40 years passed in which the monument’s presence, legally speaking, went unchallenged. And the public visiting the capitol grounds is more likely to have considered the religious aspect of the tablets’ message as part of what is a broader moral and historical message reflective of a cultural heritage.”

While this was the first time the Supreme Court has dealt with the issue of public displays of the Ten Commandments since 1980 (when it struck down a Kentucky law that required public schools to post the Commandments), it certainly will not be the last, as more attempts are continually made to remove God and America’s Christian heritage from the public square.

Click to enlarge

Today’s split decision (5-4 ruling barring Kentucky’s displays and 5-4 ruling allowing the Texas display) by the Court is a reflection of the culture war raging today in America. It is essentially a battle between those who believe God’s Word and those who choose to follow man’s opinions.

But the battle being played out in the courts is just a symptom of a bigger problem: the removal of biblical authority from everyday life. Morality is allowed to be ripped out of the culture because people by and large no longer believe the Book on which it is founded. A return to a once-Christian society cannot occur until Christians reclaim biblical authority without compromise, beginning with God’s Word in Genesis (see our rallying cry).

Published: 9 February 2006

References and notes

  1. As you walk up the steps to the US Supreme Court, you can see near the top of the building a row of famous lawgivers, and each one is facing Moses, who is standing in the middle holding the Ten Commandments. As you enter the Supreme Court courtroom, the two huge oak doors have the Ten Commandments engraved on each lower part of the door. As you sit inside the courtroom, you can see a display of the Ten Commandments right above where the Supreme Court justices sit.
  2. Associated Press, Supreme Court bars Ten Commandments at courthouses, CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/LAW/06/27/scotus.commandments.ap/index.html, June 27, 2005.
  3. Haynes, C., Ten Commandments: religious messages or civics lesson? First Amendment Center, www.firstamendmentcenter.org/commentary.aspx?id=14196, October 17, 2004.