WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday declared Ten Commandments displays in two Kentucky courthouses unconstitutional.
The court ruled that in McCreary County v. ACLU (search) that the displays violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government from endorsing or supporting one religion above others.
The justices, split 5-4, ruled that the Ten Commandments (search) could not be displayed in government buildings or property. However, the Biblical tablets could be displayed in an historical context, as they are in a frieze in the Supreme Court building. Notably, the first four commandments, which have to do with honoring God and the Sabbath, were obscured by the artist who designed the frieze.
“The touchstone for our analysis is the principle that the First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,” Justice David H. Souter wrote for the majority.
“When the government acts with the ostensible and predominant purpose of advancing religion, it violates that central Establishment clause value of official religious neutrality,” he said.
Souter was joined in his opinion by other members of the liberal bloc — Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, as well as Reagan appointee Sandra Day O’Connor, who provided the swing vote.
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that Ten Commandments displays are a legitimate tribute to the nation’s religious and legal history.
The Kentucky displays have been the target of litigation since they were first posted in 1999. With each lower court ruling against county officials, revisions were made to the displays. By the time the case landed on the Supreme Court’s dockets, the framed copies of the commandments were part of a larger, more neutral display about the history of American law
Government officials may have had a religious purpose when they originally posted the Ten Commandments display by itself in 1999. But their efforts to dilute the religious message since then by hanging other historical documents in the courthouses made it constitutionally adequate, Scalia said.
He was joined in his opinion by Chief William H. Rehnquist, as well as Justice Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
“In the court’s view , the impermissible motive was apparent from the initial displays of the Ten Commandments all by themselves: When that occurs: the Court says, a religious object is unmistakable,” he wrote. “Surely that cannot be.”
“The Commandments have a proper place in our civil history,” Scalia wrote.
The court also considered another Ten Commandments-related case, Van Orden v. Perry (search), involving a display on the grounds of a Texas courthouse. A ruling on that case was also expected Monday.
The ruling was perhaps the court’s most highly anticipated of the 2004 session. The court has not visited the hotly contested issue since 1980, when religious displays in public schools were ruled unconstitutional.
In the McCreary County case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit affirmed a lower court’s finding that the display in two Kentucky courthouses and a school district of copies of the Ten Commandments were unconstitutional.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.