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High court rules on religious monuments

Ten Commandments displays on government property aren’t inherently unconstitutional, justices ruled.
Tuesday, June 28, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:54 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A monument displaying the Ten Commandments outside the Missouri Capitol appears to be on firm legal ground after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld a similar display at the Texas Capitol.

The 5-4 ruling upheld the constitutionality of displaying the Ten Commandments on government land but drew the line on some displays inside courthouses, saying they violated the doctrine of separation of church and state. The court said framed copies in two Kentucky courthouses are unconstitutional because their religious content is overemphasized. In contrast, a 6-foot-granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol — one of 17 historical displays on the 22-acre lot — was determined to be a legitimate tribute to the nation’s legal and religious history.

“Of course, the Ten Commandments are religious — they were so viewed at their inception and so remain,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote. “Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment clause.”

Rehnquist was joined in his opinion by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Justice Stephen G. Breyer filed a separate opinion concurring in the result.

Dissenting in the Texas case, Justice John Paul Stevens argued the display was an improper government endorsement of religion. Stevens noted in large letters the monument proclaims ‘I AM the LORD thy God.”

“The sole function of the monument on the grounds of Texas’ State Capitol is to display the full text of one version of the Ten Commandments,” Stevens wrote.

“The monument is not a work of art and does not refer to any event in the history of the state,” Stevens wrote. “The message transmitted by Texas’ chosen display is quite plain: This state endorses the divine code of the Judeo-Christian God.”

Justices O’Connor, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also dissented.

The Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the exhibit to Texas in 1961, and it was installed about 75 feet from the Capitol in Austin. The group gave thousands of similar monuments to American towns during the 1950s and ‘60s.

Missouri has a similar monument outside its Capitol, given by the Eagles in 1958.

Gov. Matt Blunt’s office said the court decision should mean Missouri’s monument is on solid legal ground.

“The Ten Commandments are an important part of Western civilization that public entities ought to be able to display as they choose,” Blunt said in a statement.

Decisions about displays on the Capitol grounds are made by the Capitol Review Commission, but the panel hasn’t had requests to handle in a while, the governor’s office said.

Last year, during an unrelated dispute over the display of the Ten Commandments in a public school cafeteria, the Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said it was aware of the Capitol monument but had received no complaints about it and wasn’t pursuing legal action. The ACLU did not return a call seeking comment Monday.

In the Kentucky case, [Added] Scalia released a stinging dissent, declaring, “What distinguishes the rule of law from the dictatorship of a shifting Supreme Court majority is the absolutely indispensable requirement that judicial opinions be grounded in consistently applied principle.”

The rulings were the court’s first major statement on the Ten Commandments since 1980, when justices barred their display in public schools. But the high court’s split verdict leaves somewhat unsettled the role of religion in American society, a question that has become a flashpoint in U.S. politics.

“While the court correctly rejects the challenge to the Ten Commandments monument on the Texas Capitol grounds, a more fundamental rethinking of our Establishment Clause jurisprudence remains in order,” Thomas wrote in a separate opinion.

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