Supreme Court lets stand order to remove Ten Commandments monument

A lower court ruled that a Ten Commandments monument on the lawn of an Oklahoma courthouse was an endorsement of religion, and violated the First Amendment. The Supreme Court let that decision stand.

By , Staff writer

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    This 5-foot tall stone slab bearing the Ten Commandments is shown near the Capitol, in this July 2002 file photo, in Austin, Texas.
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The US Supreme Court declined on Monday to take up a dispute over the placement of a Ten Commandments monument on the lawn outside a county courthouse in Oklahoma.

The justices dismissed the case in a one-line order without comment.

The action lets stand a ruling by a federal appeals court and clears the way for the display to be removed from public property. A federal judge had ordered the removal last August.

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The case, Haskell County Board of Commissioners v. James Green, stems from a dispute over a Ten Commandments display erected in a public park by a local pastor in 2004. The display is among several monuments on the lawn outside the county courthouse in Stigler, Oklahoma.

The monument displays the Ten Commandments and includes the notation: “Erected by Citizens of Haskell County.” The text of the Mayflower Compact is displayed on the other side of the monument.

Local resident James Green and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma filed suit in federal court, alleging that display of the Ten Commandments on public property is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the county commissioners who approved the display. A federal judge held a two-day trial and disagreed, ruling that the county commissioners had a secular purpose of acknowledging the historical significance of the Ten Commandments.

The judge ruled that under an existing 2005 Supreme Court precedent in a Texas case, the display did not amount to an unconstitutional endorsement or establishment of state-sponsored religion.

A panel of the Tenth US Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It ruled that the display was an endorsement of religion and thus violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on excessive church-state entanglement.

The county asked the full Tenth Circuit to review the case, but the appeals court deadlocked 6 to 6. The tie vote meant the panel decision stood.

In asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, lawyers for Haskell County said the Tenth Circuit’s decision conflicted with earlier Ten Commandments rulings in the Eighth and Ninth Circuits.

“This case provides the court with an opportunity to correct the doctrinal instability currently existing in religious display cases,” wrote Kevin Theriot in the county’s petition to the court. The petition quoted a Tenth Circuit judge’s lament that the high court’s church-state jurisprudence exists in “establishment clause purgatory.”

In urging the high court to reject the appeal, ACLU lawyer Daniel Mach said the dispute over the monument divided the community along religious lines. Some community members backed the county’s stance on the monument as a defense of Christian values and religious beliefs, while others were offended by the display and what they perceived as the county’s endorsement of the majority’s religious beliefs.

Mr. Green, a resident of Stigler, is quoted in the brief as saying he was afraid that the county government’s defense of the monument meant that he and others who objected to the display would be treated differently and more harshly than supporters of the monument.

Nine states filed a friend of the court brief asking the high court to hear Haskell County’s appeal. It said Ten Commandments display lawsuits are particularly burdensome to state and local governments “because public officials cannot reliably predict their outcomes based on precedents from this or any other court.”

The states urged the court to use the case to develop clearer guidance for public officials and lower courts about when governments may display the Ten Commandments.

The nine states are Indiana, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia.

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