Only Way Round is Through
- Feb 24, 2005
- Reaction score
- Pasadena, California
- Political Leaning
- Slightly Liberal
SourceIn its ruling concerning the Kentucky case, the majority determined that display violated the separation of church and state established in the First Amendment.
Justice Stephen Breyer, considered a moderate liberal, voted against the displays in Kentucky but in favor of the one in Texas.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate conservative, voted against the displays in both states and cast the swing vote in the Kentucky decision, which stopped short of forbidding such exhibits on all court or government property.
The decision allows the court some leeway to determine the appropriateness of displays on a case-by-case basis.
The Kentucky case involved a dispute over two framed copies of the Mosaic law displayed in a courthouse. The majority determined that particular exhibit went too far in promoting a religious message.
"The divisiveness of religion in current public life is inescapable," Justice David Souter wrote in the majority ruling, read from the bench. "This is not time to deny the prudence of understanding the Establishment Clause to require the government to stay neutral on religious belief, which is reserved for the conscience of the individual."
Justices customarily read majority rulings from the bench, but Justice Antonin Scalia took the unusual step of reading a dissent from the bench. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined Scalia in the minority opinion.
Scalia cited "the interest of the overwhelming majority of religious believers in being able to give God thanks and supplication as a people, and with respect to our national endeavors."
Rehnquist read the ruling in the Texas case, and cited the complexity of deciding when and where Ten Commandments displays are permissible.
"No exact formula can dictate a resolution in fact-intensive cases such as this," he read. "... 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."
This was the first time the high court dealt with the issue of public displays of the Ten Commandments since 1980, when it ruled against them at schools.
The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The Supreme Court has traditionally interpreted that to mean government actions must have a "secular purpose."
In March, lawyers representing the federal, state and county governments argued the 4,000 Ten Commandments displays in public courthouses and parks nationwide simply acknowledge the role belief in a higher authority has had in the development of the United States.
"The Ten Commandments are a historically recognized system of law," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said as he argued the case several months ago.
In 1961, private funds financed the granite monument which stands on the grounds of the Texas state capitol in Austin. Thomas Van Orden, who had described himself as a "religious pluralist," opposed the display and filed suit.
Van Orden's attorney, Erwin Chemerinsky, drew intense questioning from the justices over the limits of religious expression in government as he argued the case.
"Are you saying Thanksgiving proclamations are inappropriate?" asked Justice Antonin Scalia, comparing that to the Ten Commandments. "I don't see why the one is good and the other is bad."
O'Connor asked, "If legislatures open their sessions, that the public can attend, with a prayer, why can't it allow monuments?"
In the Kentucky cases, two Kentucky counties tried to justify separately posting copies of the King James version of the Ten Commandments on the walls of their courthouses.
These were privately donated displays of 11 frames of historical documents and symbols that they said helped form the basis of American law and government, including the Declaration of Independence. All but the Ten Commandments were secular in nature.
Mathew Staver, representing McCreary and Pulaski counties, argued in March that the "documents reflect American law and government."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said then that "these are not simple messages, like 'In God We Trust,' " on U.S. currency, she said. "The Ten Commandments are a powerful statement of the covenant God made with his people."
What are people's thoughts?