Supreme Court Takes Commandment Cases

The US Supreme Court, in an October surprise,” announced it is accepting two conflicting cases over the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays on public property.

The court will review the decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against a Texas lawsuit challenging a 6-foot-tall red granite Ten Commandments marker on the Capitol grounds in Austin. The marker, like most found on public property, was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. A homeless former attorney, Thomas Van Orden, lost his challenge at both the federal and appeals court levels.

The court will also review a case out of Kentucky, in which the district court and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that posting of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses was unconstitutional. Officials in McCreary and Pulaski counties placed framed copies of the bible edicts in courthouses. After lawsuits were filed, they added documents such as the Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence, but judges ruled the biblical postings still establish religion.

Appeals courts are divided on the question, but most have found government-placed Ten Commandments to be unconstitutional, including the 11th Circuit, the 6th Circuit, and the 7th Circuit, and a decision being reviewed en banc in the 8th Circuit. The 10th Circuit found that if government bodies accept Ten Commandments monuments, they must accept monuments from minority viewpoints. Only the 5th and 3rd U.S. Circuits have ruled that Ten Commandments markers are constitutional.

“You have only to look at the First Commandment, which decrees, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me,’ to know why Ten Commandments displays do not belong on public property. Under our First Amendment, citizens may have any god that they like, as many gods as they like, or no gods at all!” said Freedom From Religion Foundation founder Anne Nicol Gaylor.

The Foundation, which has a complicated Ten Commandments case before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, will be submitting a friend of the court brief.

Supreme Court precedent is the strong ruling in Stone v. Graham, 1980, a Kentucky case barring placement of donated Ten Commandments posters in public schools:

“The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments is undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one’s parents, killing or murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness. Rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord’s name in vain, and observing the sabbath day.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation