Historic Ruling in Ten Commandments Case Affirms Religious Liberty Principles in Strongest Terms, ACLU Says

June 27, 2005 12:00 am

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Congress Should Resist “Unwise and Unnecessary” Constitutional Amendment on the Ten Commandments

WASHINGTON — Today’s historic Supreme Court ruling that display of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses violates the Constitution contains some of the Court’s most powerful language in years on the question of the government’s role in religion and society, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“As the Justices today affirmed, religious liberty is best strengthened by following the Constitution’s command against government entanglement with religion, not by government involvement in religious decision-making,” said ACLU Legal Director Steven R Shapiro.

Some of the strongest language came from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s concurrence with the 5-4 majority, in which she said: “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

“When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders,” Justice O’Connor wrote, “it encroaches upon the individual’s decision about whether and how to worship?Allowing government to be a potential mouthpiece for competing religious ideas risks the sort of division that might easily spill over into suppression of rival beliefs.”

Justice O’Connor’s words echo her opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly, in which she observed that state endorsement of religion “sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.”

“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 the case last March.

In a second decision today, the Court upheld a stone monument display of the Ten Commandments on the Texas statehouse grounds. However, no opinion commanded a majority of the Court. The critical fifth vote was provided by Justice Breyer, who acknowledged that “‘the separation of church and state’ has long been critical to the peaceful dominion that religion exercises in [this] country,” but nevertheless concluded that the particular circumstances of the Ten Commandments display in Texas permitted it to stay.

“While we disagree with that conclusion,” Shapiro said, “a majority of the Supreme Court in both cases has now clearly reaffirmed the principle that government may not promote a religious message through its display of the Ten Commandments.”

However, the ACLU expressed concern about reports that some in Congress are intent on pushing for a constitutional amendment to permit religious displays on government property. Such an extreme assault on the First Amendment is both unwise and unnecessary, the ACLU said.

“The Justices affirmed that the government can honor the historical importance of religious displays without having the state endorse one faith over another,” said Terri Ann Schroeder, a Senior Lobbyist with the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. “Congress should respect that distinction, and respect the First Amendment’s protections against the government funding or promoting religion. We can honor our roots while honoring the Constitution.”

For more information on the ACLU’s defense of religious liberty, go to /ReligiousLiberty/ReligiousLibertyMain.cfm.

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