Kentucky Judge Again Orders Ten Commandments Displays in Schools and Courthouses Removed

Affiliate: ACLU of Kentucky
June 22, 2001 12:00 am

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LONDON, KY – In a victory for religious freedom, U.S. District Judge Jennifer B. Coffman ruled today that government-endorsed Ten Commandments displays in local Kentucky schools and courthouses violate the First Amendment and must be removed immediately.

“”Judge Coffman’s ruling is quite clear, and is a reiteration of her ruling last year,” said David A. Friedman, General Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, which brought the challenges to the displays. “Our Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion is good for both government and religion. It keeps religion free, and it allows government to represent us all.””

In today’s ruling, Judge Coffman said the Ten Commandments displays violate the First Amendment because they have both the purpose and effect of government endorsement of religion.

Today’s decision comes after Judge Coffman ordered similar displays in Harlan County Schools and the McCreary and Pulaski County courthouses removed last May.

Originally, the counties erected displays consisting of only a framed copy of the Ten Commandments. The defendants later added other documents – primarily documents that had been excerpted down to their religious references — saying they were trying to insulate themselves from an expected ACLU of Kentucky lawsuit, which came in November 1999.

In her May 2000 decision which ordered the removal of those displays, Judge Coffman said they “have the overwhelming effect of endorsing religion,” noting that the First Amendment protects “the religious diversity that is our national heritage.”

Regarding the displays’ effect, Judge Coffman today wrote, “”Given the religious nature of this document, placing it among these patriotic and political documents, with no other religious symbols or moral codes of any kind, imbues it with a national significance constituting endorsement….The reasonable observer will see one religious code placed alongside eight political or patriotic documents, and will understand that the counties promote that one religious code as being on a par with our nation’s most cherished secular symbols and documents. This is endorsement.”

Through the years, the courts have determined that in order for a government action to be constitutional, it must have a secular purpose and not endorse religion. A violation of either principle means the action violates the First Amendment.

Although the defendants have offered several supposed secular purposes, Judge Coffman noted last year that the court has a duty “to distinguish a sham secular purpose from a sincere one.” She went on to write that “the history of these displays indicates that the defendants’ overall purpose is religious in nature: to display the Ten Commandments.”

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