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State attorney general calls Ten Commandments displays unconstitutional

By The Associated Press

04.05.02

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ten Commandments displays on government property amount to an unconstitutional promotion of religion, the state attorney general said.

The displays violate a provision of the First Amendment that states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," state Attorney General Paul Summers opined on April 3.

"Courts have held this provision applicable to states and their political subdivisions," Summers wrote.

The Tennessean reported March 24 that, according to June Griffin, a woman seeking to get the codes posted in all of the state's 95 counties, 82 counties had passed resolutions in support of the religious codes.

The newspaper then reported on March 30 that the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee said it had conducted an informal telephone survey of all 95 counties. ACLU officials told the newspaper that the survey, which the group didn't claim to be scientific, found 65 county commissions had endorsed the posting of the codes.

The Associated Press reported that the decision to post the codes in some counties was inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks and in others by the belief that putting the commandments in public view will encourage morality. Washington County in northeast Tennessee has displayed the commandments for more than 80 years.

Yet Summers found these resolutions to be unconstitutional.

He cited the so-called "Lemon test" established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman. The test requires that a law have a secular purpose, that its primary effect be "one that neither advances nor inhibits religion" and that it does not "create excessive government entanglement."

Summers also relied on the high court's ruling in Stone v. Graham, in which the court held that a Kentucky law requiring the Ten Commandments in each public school classroom violated the Constitution under the Lemon test.

Summers' opinion was requested by Cornelia Clark, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

"The opinion was requested on behalf of the judges of this office and is being distributed to all state judges," said office spokeswoman Sue Allison.

Summers notes there are laws allowing Ten Commandments displays in government buildings.

"However, it is clear that if the General Assembly enacted a statute which authorized or required the posting of the Ten Commandments in county buildings, such a statute would have no discernible secular purpose and would violate the Establishment Clause," Summers wrote.

The General Assembly in 1996 considered a resolution encouraging homes, schools and businesses to post the Ten Commandments. Then-Attorney General Charles Burson opined the resolution was unconstitutional.

Related

Teen asks Tennessee county to display Islamic pillars
Bradley County Commission, which recently voted to allow posting of Ten Commandments, has refused to consider request.  04.02.02

Push for Ten Commandments displays gains momentum in South
Supporters see effort as way of encouraging morality, but civil libertarians view campaign as affront to nation's fundamental principles.  04.12.02

ACLU sues Tennessee county over commandments displays
State director says group filed lawsuit 'to ensure that individuals have the right to decide for themselves whether to practice a particular religious faith.'  02.02.02

County attorney: Ten Commandments displays aren't religious
Tennessee officials tell federal judge that postings are secular reminders for citizens to obey the law.  04.30.02

County loses fight over Ten Commandments displays
Federal judge orders Tennessee officials to remove plaques from two courthouses, ruling postings violate church-state separation.  05.06.02

Supreme Court refuses to clear up confusion over Ten Commandments display
Justices turn away appeal from Indiana governor who wanted permission to erect 7-foot monument on state Capitol grounds.  02.26.02

Court hears dispute over another Tennessee commandments display
ACLU attorney tells federal judge that courthouse posting illegally endorses religion by including religious codes alongside secular documents.  05.07.02

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