ACLU Urges Supreme Court to Protect Religious Liberty in Ten Commandments Case

March 2, 2005 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON-The Supreme Court today heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays on government land and buildings in two separate cases, including a successful challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky to courthouse displays.

“The Ten Commandments play an important part in the spiritual lives of many Americans and it is precisely for this reason that the government should not be in the business of endorsing or promoting religious beliefs,” said David A. Friedman, General Counsel for the ACLU of Kentucky, who argued before the Court today. “People should not be made to feel like second-class citizens in their own community because they may not share the prevailing religious view — especially in a courthouse.”

In the Kentucky case, a lower court found that Ten Commandments postings in courthouses in McCreary and Pulaski counties “conveyed a message of religious endorsement” and thus violated the constitutional principle of religious liberty. The appeals court upheld that ruling. The ACLU brought the lawsuit in 1999 on behalf of two citizens of each county, including Dave Howe, a 69-year-old retired radio broadcaster and son of a Baptist minister.

“I believe that attempts by governmental agencies, at any level, to endorse religious beliefs are an affront to those who do not necessarily share those particular beliefs,” said Howe. “I have no quarrel with the Ten Commandments, but they don’t belong in my courthouse.”

At issue in the case are Ten Commandments displays that were posted in prominent locations in the McCreary and Pulaski county courthouses in 1999. County officials claimed that the Ten Commandments provide the foundation of American legal tradition. However, as many courts have found, the Ten Commandments are inherently religious principles and should not be promoted by government officials.

Religious leaders and members of the clergy have also raised concerns over the Ten Commandments postings and government interference in religious liberty. The counties are not only promoting religious beliefs, but have shown denominational favoritism by posting the text of the Protestant “King James” version of Ten Commandments, according to some religion experts. As a result of deep, theological disputes, there are at least five different versions of the Ten Commandments, including Jewish, Catholic and Lutheran texts.

“The Constitution guarantees each person the right to express belief in God without interference by the state,” said Rev. Patrick Delahanty, a Roman Catholic priest in Louisville. “In order to protect religious freedom, the government must leave the promotion of religion to the church and neither aid nor hinder this legitimate church activity.”

When the Court last considered this issue in 1980 — in a challenge also brought by the ACLU of Kentucky — it reversed a lower court ruling that had upheld a state law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. Since that time, the ACLU and others, acting on behalf of local communities and religious leaders, have successfully challenged Ten Commandments postings and monuments in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and elsewhere.

“The relationship between individuals and their God, which is at the core of the Ten Commandments, is and should remain a private matter. It is not the government’s business,” said ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro.

For more information, including a copy of the ACLU’s brief, statements from clergy and clients, and fact sheets on Ten Commandments cases, go to: /node/36305.

For more information on the ACLU’s defense of religious liberty, go to: www.aclu.org/religiousliberty.


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