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 THE YEAR 2005 TEN COMMANDMENTS CASES BEFORE THE U.S. SUPREME COURT, FROM KENTUCKY AND TEXAS

The oral arguments

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A brief background of the two cases:

bulletMcCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (03-1693): This case originally involved a display of the Ten Commandments by itself, in court buildings and public schools in the Kentucky counties of McCreary, Pulaski and Harlan. Later, the Decalogue was supplemented by many Christian display and a few secular displays.
bulletVan Orden v. Perry (03-1500): This case involves a six-foot tall granite monument containing the Ten Commandments which was placed on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol at Austin in 1961 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. It includes the Ten Commandments, and various Judeo-Christian religious symbols. No material from any other religions or from secular sources is included.

Because of the similarity between the two cases, they are being heard together.

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The oral arguments:

The Court heard legal arguments on 2005-MAR-02. According to the Washington Post, "Opponents of displaying the Ten Commandments [by themselves] on public property say it amounts to a governmental imposition of monotheism. Proponents say it is often nothing more than a recognition of the role Judeo-Christian norms played in Western Civilization and in the founding of the United States itself."

As we have noted elsewhere in this section:

One factor that does not appear in the media reports is that the Ten Commandments is actually formed of two parts. The first section is a series of orders that people must recognize Yahweh as the only deity. These deny the legitimacy of other religions and a secular lifestyle, and produce some real First Amendment concerns. The second part is a slightly longer series of commands forbidding such behaviors as lying, stealing, committing adultery, murdering people, etc. The first part is a purely religious document. The latter part is a set of behavioral laws that were combined with elements of Roman law and facets from other legal systems to produce systems of laws common to many jurisdictions in the western world.

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Some arguments and reactions:

bulletDavid Friedman, an attorney for the America Civil Liberties Association, favors the Ten Commandments being displayed only in a cultural display which includes material from other religions and secular sources.   He said: "An assertion that the Ten Commandments is THE source, THE foundation of our legal system....that is simply wrapping the Ten Commandments in the flag, and that's endorsement." 1
bulletMathew Staver, president of the conservative Christian Liberty Counsel, said that the Decalogue is: "a universally recognized symbol of law. A visitor to the United States Supreme Court cannot even enter the very chambers where argument was heard without coming into contact with the Ten Commandments. They are engraved at the main entrance on the double wooden doors, and they also appear on the bronze gates which exit from either side. Inside the Court, the only written inscription of the numerous architectural depictions is the Decalogue in Hebrew text. The Ten Commandments are featured in the central position on this Court's East Pediment....The Ten Commandments have also influenced our common vernacular, by giving rise to numerous pithy sayings, like 'The Ten Commandments of a Good Golf Swing'." 1
bulletJustice Anthony Kennedy, said that "singling out the Ten Commandments for elimination would show hostility towards religion in violation of the Establishment Clause." Another time, he commented that: "if an atheist walks by [a public display], he can avert his eyes." 1
bulletJustice Antonin Scalia suggested: "Turn your eyes away, if it's such a big deal to you." 1
bulletJay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative Christian American Center for Law and Justice, said: "This is not about endorsing a specific religion, but recognizing the fact that the Ten Commandments have played a vital role. No one denies the religious significance the Commandments hold for many. But that does not render them unconstitutional." 1
bulletActing U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement spoke for the Federal Government in favor of allowing free display of the Ten Commandments in any format. He said: "The idea of having a fence around the Ten Commandments to make clear the state has nothing to do with it — I think that is bending [the Constitution] too far." 1 However, Clement did concede that the 5280 pound monument that former Chief Justice Moore of Alabama placed in the state Justice building "may well cross the constitutional line." Moore's monument is very similar to the Texas monument which is the subject of this court case. Moore's monument is also considerably shorter and smaller than the Texas monument. 2
bulletJordan Lorence, an attorney of the conservative Christian Alliance Defense Fund said: "I am cautiously optimistic that we are going to get a good result from the U.S. Supreme Court in both these cases, when the decisions come down in June. The justices expressed a clear consensus in their questions that they support Ten Commandments monuments, at least in some format. They believe that the Constitution permits that. We are not going to lose both cases." 1
bulletGregg Abbott, Attorney General of Texas said: "This will determine the extent to which government can acknowledge religion....[it is] a historical fact that religion has played a role in our lives and society. And government should not be prohibited from recognizing that. And we should not take a chisel to the buildings and monuments that exist across the country." There seem to be attempts under way to cleanse America of its religious heritage. It is perfectly constitutional to recognize the role that religion has played in the history and development of this country, and the Ten Commandments are one way of commemorating the influence that they have had on the development of law. We cannot turn a blind eye to that history." 1
bulletThe Supreme Court itself contains a number of marble statues in a cultural display. It includes:
bulletSecular law authorities (including Napoleon, Caesar Augustus, John Marshall, and Hammurabi)
bulletFigures from a variety of religions -- (including Confucius, Muhammad, and Moses).

Lawyers on both sides and the Supreme Court justices repeated referred to the frieze.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked: "What if, instead of a six-foot stone monument on the [Texas] state capitol grounds bearing the words of all 10 commandments -- beginning with 'I am the Lord thy God' -- Texas posted a version like the one Moses holds in the frieze in which only the last five are visible?" Erwin Chemerinsky. a Duke University law professor who opposes the Texas monument, replied: "That...[would be] still unconstitutional. It would still be the state of Texas expressing the message that there is a God." He said that the Supreme Court's frieze is constitutional because it places the commandments in a secular context. Presumably he was referring to the secular lawgivers who surround the statue of Moses.

Greg Abbott countered that the Texas monument is also part of a cultural display. It is part of a "park-like" area dotted with monuments to veterans, pioneers and other "historical influences" that have shaped Texas. 2

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References used:

  1. Pete Winn, "Ten Commandments arguments go well," Focus on the Family, 2005-MAR-02, at: http://www.family.org/
  2. "Supreme Court hears debates over displays. Commandments prompt cases," The Washington Post. 2005-MAR-03.

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Site navigation: Home > Religious LawsTen Commandments > 2005 SCOTUS cases > here

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Copyright © 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2005-MAR-03
Latest update: 2005-MAR-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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