Monday, June 27, 2005

Supreme Court Invalidates Kentucky Ten Commandments Display

In yet another 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that the display of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courts are unconstitutional. The ruling did not invalidate all possible displays of the Ten Commandments on public grounds, just the two displays in question.

Basically, the justices seemed to take in to account the intent of the displays. They ruled that some Ten Commandment displays could be legal if set in the greater secular context of the history of law. One such display in Kentucky did just that, surrounding the Commandments with other legal documents from American history. The problem it seems is that those documents were added only after the ACLU sued. Clearly, the original intent was to just display the Ten Commandments and that, said the court, amounts to government establishment of religion and is thus unconstitutional.

These Ten Commandment cases have bothered me from the get go. I feel we’ve interpreted too-tightly the meaning of “establishment” so that we now forbid so much as a reference to a specific religion in public places. I do not think the Framers intended the First Amendment to bar all recognition of religion in the public square. Nor do I think denying recognition of religion in the public square is some kind of natural evolution of a free society. Religion and democracy can and should coexist quite well. More secular does not always mean more free.

That said, I don’t feel comfortable calling this a bad ruling. For one, it sets absolutely no precedent as it is narrowly focused. In fact, if it does set any precedent, it is to allow the display of the Ten Commandments as long as they are intended to be presented in a secular context. Not a victory for the pro-Commandments forces, but not a total defeat either.

We’ll know more when the ruling on the Texas case comes down. If the Court invalidates the Ten Commandments display on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol, I think we have reason to be concerned. If not, then we can focus on the Kentucky ruling and decide whether or not it goes too far in banning religious references.


At 11:50 AM, Blogger Rob Jackson said...

The University of Virginia doesn't have a chapel on campus because it was built by Thomas Jefferson. I think Jefferson was clear on what he believed to be the separation of Church and State. Now about the other framers...who knows, they're all dead now.

If 10 comandment proponents wanted schools to teach more about faith and moral values and how they mold our judgements and shape how we learn (across religions, or morals devoid of religion), I wouldn't have a problem with it. But clearly, their intent is to show that the Establishment (be it government, schools, etc) is a Christian Establishment (even though the Comandments are more or less a Jewish document), and this is a no-no in this country.

And when you say "we've interpreted too tightly the that we now forbid so much as a reference to specific religion in public places, I think you're strong-arming this argument a little.

That's like saying kids can't pray in school or before football games. Sure you can pray, just don't expect everyone to want to join it, listen to it or like it.

I think what you're saying, and what I agree with, is that it's okay to express (in various forms) religion outside of religious institutions. In fact, most religions like it if you apply your faith and beliefs in all that you do (I'm not talking rituals here).

However, when it becomes a symbol of an institution -- like putting it in the middle of a courthouse lobby -- or front and center in a classroom, for the purpose of the institution's evangelism of Christian Ethics, then this is moving closer to a national religion, which was clearly not the framers' intentions -- who are all dead now.

At 12:05 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


I think you've done an excellent job of outlining the difficulties with separation of church and state. I am not of one-mind about all of this and think it is actually one of the most complex and interesting debates out there.

As for the dead Framers, they probably intended not to establish a national's actually up for debate whether or not they thought states could establish a state religion. I think it's safe to say we've probably come to interpret the establisment clause a little tighter than intended...whether that's good or bad is open for debate.


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