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Van Orden v. Perry

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Brief Fact Summary.

The Texas State Capitol placed a monument, which contains the text of the Ten Commandments. The petitioner saw the monument and sued state officials alleging that the monument’s placement violates the Establishment Clause.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The government must not press religious observances upon their citizens.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Justice Breyer determined that no single mechanical formula □ can accurately draw the constitutional line in every case.

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Facts.

The Texas State Capitol has monuments and historical markers commemorating the people that compose Texan identity. Among them is the challenged monolith, which contains the text of the Ten Commandments. The petitioner, who has graduated from Southern Methodist Law School, has encountered the Ten Commandments monument during his visit to the Capitol grounds. He sued state officials alleging that the monument’s placement violates the Establishment Clause.

Issue.

Does the Establishment Clause allow the display of a monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments on the Texas State Capitol grounds?

Held.

Yes, because simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause. The monument Texas has displayed in the state Capitol was not placed for the advance of a religion but for other more significant purposes. Thus, the display of the monument does not violate the Establishment Clause.

Dissent.

Justice Stevens

The Establishment Clause has created a strong presumption against the display of religious symbols on public property, because it risks offending non-members of the faith being advertised. Government is obligated to avoid divisiveness and exclusion in the religious sphere under the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. The texts displayed cannot be discounted as a passive acknowledgement of religion because the texts are venerable religious text and the monument itself sits on the ground of the Texas State Capitol, which is the civic home of every citizen. Any citizen should be able to visit that civic home without having to encounter religious expressions clearly meant to convey religious position.

Concurrence.

Justice Thomas and Breyer

Justice Thomas: The Ten Commandments display is constitutional because Texas, by placing the monument in its State Capitol, does not compel anyone including the petitioner to do anything. The petitioner takes offense at seeing the monument as he passed by but he need not stop it to read or look at it or even support the texts.

Justice Breyer: The monument here has been used as a display that communicates not only a religious message, but a secular message as well. The circumstances and its physical setting suggest that Texas has intended non-religious aspects of the monument’s message to predominate. Texas in no way advances or inhibit religion or create an excessive government involvement with the religion.

Discussion.

While the Ten Commandments are religious and the monument has religious significance, they also contain legal and political history because the Ten Commandments were given by God to Moses, who was a lawgiver as well as a religious leader. Moreover, the placement of the Ten Commandments monument on the Texas State Capitol grounds is passive use of those texts and people do not encounter them often. The petitioner had walked by the monument for many years before bringing a suit. The inclusion of the Ten Commandments monument has a dual significant, both religiously and politically. Thus, the display does not violate the Establishment Clause.


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