U.S. Supreme Court rules on government display of Ten Commandments

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Monday, June 27, 2005

US Supreme Court Building

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that "non-neutral" displays of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms violate the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of religious neutrality, but that "historical" displays are permitted.

In the case McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, the court ruled that the display of the Commandments in Kentucky county courthouses constituted an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. However, in the case Van Orden v. Perry heard at the same time, the court permitted the display of the Commandments in a monument at the Texas state capitol.

In the Texas case, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the majority, wrote that:

Texas has treated her Capitol grounds monuments as representing the several strands in the State’s political and legal history. The inclusion of the Ten Commandments monument in this group has a dual significance, partaking of both religion and government.

However, in the Kentucky decision, the Court ruled that the history of the Ten Commandments' display in the courthouse was evidence of religious (and not historical) intention and that the reasoning given in legislative resolutions was not reflective of the counties' actual intentions in their displays. Justice Souter wrote for the majority, drawing specific attention to the character of the display:

The display's unstinting focus was on religious passages, showing that the Counties were posting the Commandments precisely because of their sectarian content. That demonstration of the government's objective was enhanced by serial religious references and the accompanying resolution's claim about the embodiment of ethics in Christ.

Proponents of displaying the Commandments hold that they represent the bedrock of Western legal tradition. Opponents hold that the ancient Biblical rules, which begin I am the Lord thy God, represent religious dogma, not law.

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