Supporters of religious freedom were thrilled when the U.S. Supreme Court announced Tuesday it would take up cases involving the constitutionality of the display of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky and Texas.
The Supreme Court hasn’t reviewed a case involving the display of the Ten Commandments since its 1980 decision that banned posting the Ten Commandments in public schools. But conflicting lower rulings have forced the justices to give another look to the controversial issue.
In the Kentucky case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld in December 2003 a prior federal ruling to remove the framed copies of the Ten Commandments, which hung in McCreary and Pulaski county courthouses. The courthouses added other historical documents such as the Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence after the display was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"We are pleased the Supreme Court has accepted review of this important case,” said Mathew Staver, President and General Counsel of Liberty Counsel, who is representing the Kentucky courthouses in their appeal.
“The decision to review a case involving the display of the Ten Commandments is long overdue. The lower courts are hopelessly in confusion over the constitutionality of governmental displays of the Ten Commandments."
Justices will also review a ruling in another case where the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a 6-foot tall red granite displaying the Ten Commandments in Austin, Texas, could stand since it was more historical than religious in representation. Thomas Van Orden, a homeless man, filed suit against the monument, one of many Ten Commandments displays donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the 1950s and 1960s.
Supporters of the display of the Ten Commandments on public grounds say it is a historical representation of the foundational role of Judeo-Christian beliefs in U.S. law. Opponents argue that the displays are unconstitutional because it translates to a governmental endorsement of religion.
"It's clear that the Ten Commandments is a religious document. Its display is appropriate in houses of worship but not at the seat of government," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said Tuesday.
The Ten Commandments controversy was brought into national spotlight by former Alabama Justice Roy Moore, who was removed from office after refusing to dismantle a Ten Commandments monument from the Montgomery courthouse. Last week, the Supreme Court rejected Moore’s appeal to his removal.
One legal group handling nearly 20 cases involving a challenge to displays of the Ten Commandments throughout the country is hoping the Supreme Court will also consider a Ten Commandments case in Ohio. The American Civil Liberty Justice is defending a display of Ten Commandments outside of a public school.
"This is a critical opportunity for the high court to clarify one of the most confusing areas of church/state law," said Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the ACLJ.
"After more than twenty years and many conflicting appeals courts decisions, we're pleased that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear cases involving the public display of the Ten Commandments. It is clear that the Commandments have played a vital role in the formation of western law. They are very important from a historical standpoint and are also widely displayed throughout our country - including the very chamber where the Supreme Court will hear this case. We are hopeful that the high court will move to protect the constitutionality of these displays."
The cases are Van Orden v. Perry, 03-1500 and McCreary County v. ACLU, 03-1693.