The counties in Kentucky posted Ten Commandments on the walls of their courthouses. After the counties were sued for violation of the Establishment Clause, they modified display of the Commandments surrounded by texts containing religious references as their sole common element.
The display of the Ten Commandments in public classrooms violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishment of religion.
Petitioners McCreary County and Pulaski County, Kentucky displayed large copies of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses. They were put up in a highly crowded area. Respondents sued the counties in federal district court and sought an injunction against maintaining the displays, alleging a violation of the prohibition of religious establishment.
Does the counties’ display of Ten Commandments on courthouses violate the First Amendment?
Yes, because the government has acted with the obvious and predominant purpose of advancing religion and thus has violated the central Establishment Clause value of official religious neutrality by taking sides. The counties favors one faith over another or adherence to religion generally by setting up the Ten Commandments in public places and essentially sends the message to non-adherents “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.”
Acknowledgement of the contribution that religion has made to our Nation’s legal and governmental heritage has been a centuries-old tradition. Display of the Ten Commandments is well within the mainstream of this practice of acknowledgement. Federal and state governments have engaged in such display since the past. The frequency of these displays shows the popular understanding that the Ten Commandments are a foundation of the rule of law.
Stone v. Graham (1980), which shall dictate the case at issue, recognized that the Commandments are an “instrument of religion” and that the display of their text could presumptively be understood as meant to advance religion. While the Commandments have had influence on civil and secular law, the original text viewed in its entirely is obviously a religious statement dealing with religious obligations. The counties initiated an effort to place this statement in public view.
While the opposition talks about the limitation on the application of the neutrality principle and argues that historical evidence shows that the Framers understood the ban on establishment of religion as sufficiently narrow to allow the government to support submission to religion, their interpretation is wrong. History shows that religion of concern to the Framers was not that of religious faiths generally, but Christianity in particular. Thus, the Court may not take it as a premise for construing the Religion Clauses.