Supreme Court Lets Ruling Stand That Religious Monument At Oklahoma Courthouse Is Unconstitutional

March 1, 2010

Court Declines Review Of Appellate Decision That Government-Sponsored Ten Commandments Monument Improperly Endorses Religion

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                              
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court today let stand a federal appellate ruling that a government-sponsored Ten Commandments monument placed on a county courthouse lawn is unconstitutional and must be removed. By rejecting an appeal by the commissioners of Haskell County, Oklahoma, and declining to review the case, the Supreme Court left undisturbed a unanimous June 2009 decision by the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals that the county commissioners advanced their personal religious beliefs by erecting the monument. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma on behalf of a local resident.

"The Tenth Circuit's decision was an important victory for religious freedom and we are pleased that the Supreme Court left that ruling undisturbed," said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The Ten Commandments undoubtedly have religious significance for many, and we would vigorously defend the right of individuals, churches, or businesses to display this monument publicly on their own property. But the government should not be in the business of promoting religious viewpoints."

In its June 2009 decision, the federal court of appeals ruled that the monument violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because a "reasonable observer would view the monument as having the impermissible principal or primary effect of endorsing religion." The monument is unconstitutional, the court held, because the proposal to erect the monument, its approval by the Haskell County Board of Commissioners and the commissioners' expressly religious defense of the monument "strongly reflect a government endorsement of religion."

"All Oklahomans, of all creeds – and not just those who share the beliefs of those in power – should feel welcome at the county courthouse," said Joann Bell, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oklahoma.

The ACLU and the ACLU of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit challenging the display of the monument in October 2005, a little over a year after the Haskell County Board of Commissioners approved its placement on the county courthouse lawn. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma ruled against the plaintiffs in August 2006, prompting an appeal to the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Tenth Circuit reversed the decision, unanimously ruling in favor of plaintiffs, and later rejected defendants' petition for a rehearing en banc, i.e., in front of all of the court's judges.

Lawyers on the case, Haskell County Board of Commissioners v. James W. Green, include Mach, Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; Lane Dilg, formerly of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; Charles S. Thornton of the ACLU of Oklahoma; Tina Izadi, formerly of the ACLU of Oklahoma; and cooperating counsel Micheal Salem of Salem Law Offices.

Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion

Additional information about the ACLU of Oklahoma is available online at: www.acluok.org

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