Conflicting rulings on Commandments keep controversy simmering
By The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. Courts last week ordered the removal of monuments to the Ten Commandments from an Alabama state courthouse and four Ohio public schools.
In Texas, a federal court just six weeks earlier ruled the opposite, deciding a monument to the Ten Commandments could stay on state Capitol grounds.
Those conflicting rulings and others in states across the South and Midwest have added fuel to an already heated debate over whether such displays violate the First Amendment's ban on government endorsement of religion.
While most courts have said the displays are intended to promote religion, others have said they have historical value, too.
Supporters of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was ordered on Nov. 18 to remove a 5,300-pound granite Ten Commandments monument from the state's judicial building, say it's time the U.S. Supreme Court cleared up the issue once and for all.
They believe they have the perfect case.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled the Alabama monument was unconstitutional because it endorsed Moore's Judeo-Christian religious beliefs. However, Thompson complicated matters by saying the displays are permissible in some cases but not in this one, said the Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council.
"It's like you're sitting before the prince and wondering if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed today and is going to cut your head off," Schenck said.
A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a similar ruling last month and called a 6-foot-tall granite monument near the Kentucky Capitol a thinly disguised effort at government endorsement of religion. The monument had been donated to the state in 1971 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles.
But in Texas last month, another federal court said a 5-foot stone monument near the Capitol grounds in Austin could stay.
U.S. District Senior Judge Harry Lee Hudspeth said no reasonable person would consider the Texas display a religious endorsement. The monument was donated in 1961 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles for the purpose of promoting youth morality to curb juvenile delinquency.
Kentucky's Mercer County, which is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union over its posting of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, also argues the religious codes are about history. The biblical text there is accompanied by other documents, including the Mayflower Compact, the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta.
Ayesha Khan, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, one of the organizations that sued Moore over the Alabama monument, believes the issue is clear cut in the other direction.
"I think what Justice Moore has done is such a flagrant violation of the Constitution that the Supreme Court wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole," Khan said.
Morris Dees, lead counsel and co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, argued during the Alabama trial that Moore used the Ten Commandments issue to further his political career. He said he doesn't believe Moore has covered any new ground that would warrant the attention of the nation's highest court. "All he's got is a hot political issue."
But Stephen Melchior, Moore's lead attorney, says he "absolutely believes" the Supreme Court will hear the case.
"If Morris Dees and company believe we are going to sit back and feel intimidated, this poor man has another thing coming," he said.
Even though Moore's monument contains quotes from historical figures and documents, Thompson's ruling found it to be clearly a religious display, said University of Alabama constitutional law professor Bryan Fair.
"The chief justice is not trying to assert that the Ten Commandments are one of multiple sources of law. He's trying to assert the sovereignty of God over all, particularly the Judeo-Christian God," Fair said.
David Gregory, a constitutional law professor at St. John's University in New York, says he believes the conservative "state-rights wing" of the Supreme Court is looking for a case to finally decide the Ten Commandments issue. He said the chance of the Supreme Court hearing the case is probably greater if the 11th Circuit rules against Moore.
"Then you would have a very important judge in a very important state appealing to them saying, 'I'm Alabama's chief judge and I understand the law as well as anyone,'" said Gregory.
Hiram Sasser, an attorney for the Texas-based Liberty Legal Institute who has argued cases in support of Ten Commandments displays, says he thinks the Texas case will drive the debate to the Supreme Court.
Regardless of which case takes the issue to the justices, it's a matter that needs a definitive ruling, he says.
"We're going to have to have a case from the Supreme Court that once and for all tells judges that these Ten Commandments displays are OK," Sasser said.
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