December 21, 2005
Appeals court upholds Kentucky Ten Commandments display
LEXINGTON, Ky. — A federal appeals panel ruled Tuesday that a courthouse in central Kentucky can keep its display of the Ten Commandments because other historical documents also are included.
The ruling by a three-judge panel for the U.S. 6th Circuit Court upholds a lower court decision that found the display at the Mercer County courthouse in Harrodsburg is constitutionally acceptable.
The panel said the Commandments are viewed alongside nine other documents, including the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. The font size is no different for any of them, the judges noted, and there was no attempt to put the religious document at a higher level.
“When placed on a level with other documents having such unquestioned civil, legal and political influence, the Commandments’ own historical significance becomes more pronounced,” Circuit Judge Richard Suhrheinrich wrote for the panel.
“I think it shows respect for the intent of this not being just a religious display but one for law and government,” Mercer County Judge-Executive John Trisler said.
Earlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments in Pulaski and McCreary counties were unconstitutional. However, in a separate ruling, the court said an exhibit in Texas could remain because it included other historical markers and had been in place for about 40 years.
The American Civil Liberties Union brought the case against Mercer County in federal court in Lexington, arguing the display violated the Constitution’s guarantee separating church and state.
The appeals court said the ACLU was relying on a false understanding of that clause.
“This extraconstitutional construct has grown tiresome,” Suhrheinrich wrote. “The First Amendment does not demand a wall of separation between church and state. Our nation’s history is replete with governmental acknowledgment and in some cases, accommodation of religion.”
The Alliance Defense Fund said the ruling – and the words the court used to uphold Mercer County’s efforts – was a major victory for the cause.
“This is a dramatic rollback of the far-left’s misguided legal agenda,” ADF senior counsel Gary McCaleb said in a written statement. But David Friedman, general counsel of the ACLU’s Kentucky chapter, said it was clear to him that Mercer County’s intent was the same as the other counties whose displays were rejected.
“I don’t think anyone looking at it seriously thinks there was anything going on here or in any other county that wasn’t the fight over whether the government should be able to put up the Ten Commandments,” Friedman said. “Being able to prove it was something else.”
Friedman said it wasn’t clear whether the ACLU would appeal, either to the full 6th Circuit Court of Appeals or to the U.S. Supreme Court. Another group that closely follows the issue expressed skepticism that the high court would take up another Kentucky Ten Commandments case so soon after its previous one.
“Cases have been breaking in a way that allow for broadly based displays,” said Robert Boston, spokesman for the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “We’re not crazy about it, but it’s what the court has said, and we’re stuck with it.” Several counties, most of them in the South, have encountered legal challenges when attempting to post the Ten Commandments or other religious symbols on public property.
The effort got a national following in 2003 when Roy Moore was ousted as Alabama’s chief justice because he defied a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse. Moore is challenging Alabama Gov. Bob Riley in the Republican primary.
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