Newseum First Amendment Newsroom Diversity
First Amendment Center
First Amendment Text
Research Packages
First Amendment Publications

Today's News
Related links
Contact Us

spacer graphic

Ten Commandments monument can stay on Texas Capitol grounds

By The Associated Press


Printer-friendly page

AUSTIN, Texas — Thou shalt not remove the Ten Commandments from the Capitol grounds.

A federal judge has ruled that a 5-foot stone slab with the biblical passage next to the state Capitol building does not violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

Thomas Van Orden, a homeless man living in Austin, had sued for its removal, calling it an endorsement of Judeo-Christian beliefs by the state government.

In a 14-page ruling filed Oct. 2, U.S. District Senior Judge Harry Lee Hudspeth rejected those claims and said no reasonable person would consider the display a religious endorsement.

The ruling was praised by the Liberty Legal Institute, which defends religious freedoms and First Amendment rights.

"There is not (a) constitutional right to censor religious history or artifacts because some citizen feels offended," said Kelly Shackleford, the institute's chief legal counsel.

Gov. Rick Perry also applauded the ruling.

"Today's court ruling is a victory for those who believe, as I do, that the Ten Commandments are time-tested and appropriate guidelines for living a full and moral life," Perry said in a statement.

"The Ten Commandments provide a historical foundation for our laws and principles as a free and strong nation, under God, and should be displayed at the Texas Capitol," the Republican said.

The monument was donated to the state in 1961 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles for the purpose of promoting youth morality to curb juvenile delinquency. The group gave similar monuments to several states.

Hudspeth's ruling said documents show Texas accepted the monument for secular, not religious, purposes.

The monument does not bear a state seal or the Texas star that is evident on 16 other Capitol monuments, most of them memorials to the state's history.

The legislative resolution accepting the monument made no mention of religion, and there is no record that either a Christian clergyman or a Jewish rabbi participated in the dedication ceremony.

Van Orden, who said he is not religious, told the court he found the monument offensive when he passed it on his way to the state law library in the Texas Supreme Court building.

The state countered that the slab is more historical than religious, with key segments of law founded on the moral and cultural ethics provided by the commandments.

The judge noted that no one else complained about it for 40 years and that Van Orden personally waited six years before filing his lawsuit, undermining his claim that it caused him harm.

"If the plaintiff has the right to request removal ... he certainly slept on that right for a long time," Hudspeth wrote.

The judge also said that because of its location — turned away from a seldom-used door and facing away from vehicle traffic — most Capitol visitors didn't even know the monument was there.

Van Orden could not immediately be reached for comment.

Will Harrell, director of the Texas American Civil Liberties Union, which was not involved in the lawsuit, said he wasn't surprised by the decision.

An order to remove the monument would have bucked recent case law, Harrell said.

"The law has developed as such that there can be religious symbols associated with non-religious ones if they have historical values," Harrell said. "We don't go about fighting lost battles."


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

Conflicting rulings on Commandments keep controversy simmering
Analysis Supporters of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore say it's time U.S. Supreme Court cleared up issue once and for all — using his case.  11.27.02

Court derails planned Kentucky commandments display
6th Circuit panel says General Assembly acted with 'predominantly religious purpose' when it voted to place monument on Capitol grounds.  10.10.02