Some 25 years after ruling that the Ten Commandments have no place in public-school classrooms, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to extend its analysis to other types of government property.
The high court on Tuesday agreed to hear two cases challenging the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky courthouses and on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol building.
The 6-foot-high Texas monolith is identical to hundreds donated to cities across the nation — including nine in Utah — by the Fraternal Order of Eagles between the 1950s and early '70s. The monuments have been the subject of extensive litigation, including one case pending in Utah's federal court and another currently on appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Attorneys who have been involved in Ten Commandments litigation praised the court's decision as long overdue.
"It seems to me that the United States Supreme Court should have taken up this issue long ago," said Utah civil-rights attorney Brian Barnard. "It would have prevented a lot of litigation all over the country."
Barnard filed the current challenges to displays in Duchesne and Pleasant Grove, and has pursued the removal of other Ten Commandments monoliths on government property elsewhere in the state.
Attorney Edward White of the Thomas More Law Center, also applauded the court's acceptance of the cases. The Michigan-based public-interest law firm has defended the public display of the commandments in cities across the nation and represents the cities in the Utah cases.
"My reaction was 'Finally,' " White said. "It's about time that the Supreme Court took the cases."
The high court has declined to hear at least a half-dozen cases on the issue since 1980, when it ruled that the Ten Commandments are "plainly religious in nature" and could not be constitutionally posted in Kentucky classrooms. That analysis did not extend outside the classroom, however, and courts nationwide have offered differing opinions as to whether the displays violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
Of the two cases the Supreme Court agreed to hear Tuesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Texas monolith can legally remain on the capitol grounds. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an opposite decision in the Kentucky matter, ruling that framed copies of the Ten Commandments cannot be hung in county courthouses.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling on the constitutionality of Salt Lake City's monolith, was the first court in the nation to address the issue in 1973. The appeals court upheld the display, which it determined was primarily secular and not religious in nature.
The Salt Lake tablet stood until 1998, when the religious organization Summum was denied a request to erect a monument espousing its beliefs and brought a First Amendment challenge to the governmental display.
In June, U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins upheld the Eagles monument in Pleasant Grove City Park based on the 1973 ruling.
Though the Supreme Court has not previously ruled on the issue, four justices issued rare public statements in May 2001 when the court denied to accept a similar case.
Three of the court's most conservative jurists, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, said the monument at issue in the Indiana case was a "celebration of (the city's) cultural and historical roots, not a promotion of religious faith."
In response, liberal Justice John Paul Stevens noted the clearly religious nature of the first line of the commandments — "I AM the LORD thy God." — and the inclusion of two Stars of David and a symbol that represents Christ. Those elements, Stevens wrote, are "rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference."
The two cases will be argued after the first of the year, with an opinion likely coming back before the court ends its 2004-05 session in early June.