Court Decisions on the Ten Commandments

Should displays of the Ten Commandments be allowed in public buildings? Should large monuments be erected on the grounds of courthouses or legislative buildings? Should there be posters of the Ten Commandments in schools and other municipal buildings? Some argue that they are part of our legal history, but others contend that they are inherently religious and, therefore, cannot be allowed.

ACLU v. McCreary County (Supreme Court, 2005)

Many Ten Commandments monuments in America are decades old, but various local governments put up new displays as well. McCreary County, Kentucky, put up a Ten Commandments display in the county court house. After it was challenged, the county added several more documents referencing religion and God. In 2000, this display was declared unconstitutional. The court noted that the County selected only documents or portions of documents expressing favoritism towards certain religious ideas.

Van Orden v. Perry (Supreme Court, 2005)

Court houses and public parks all around the nation have had Ten Commandments monuments of one sort or another erected in them. Many Ten Commandments monuments were erected by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the 1950s and 60s. One six foot tall monument was placed on the Texas state Capitol grounds in 1961. According to the legislative resolution accepting the gift, the purpose of the monument was to 'recognize and commend a private organization for its efforts to reduce juvenile delinquency.'

Glassroth v. Moore (2002)

Roy Moore installed a huge granite monument to the Ten Commandments in Alabama, saying that their presence would help to remind people that God was sovereign over them and over the laws of the nation. A District Court, however, found that his actions were an obvious violation of the separation of church and state, ordering him to remove the monument.

O'Bannon v. Indiana Civil Liberties Union (2001)

The Supreme Court refused to hear a case about a large monument in Indiana which would have included the Ten Commandments. Because the Ten Commandments originated as a set of undeniably religious commands, it can be difficult to set them up in a secular way, for a secular purpose, and with secular effect. It’s not completely impossible, but it is difficult. Therefore, some displays will be found to be constitutional and others will be struck down. A variety of court rulings that appear to conflict or contradict is, therefore, inevitable.

Books v. Elkhart (2000)

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with plaintiffs that a Ten Commandments monument was a violation of the Constitution. The monument, one of many erected across the country with funding from the Fraternal Order of Eagles, had to be removed because the Supreme Court refused to accept an appeal. This decision reinforced the idea that there is a fundamentally religious nature to the Ten Commandments which cannot be readily overcome by protestations of secular purposes.

DiLorento v. Downey USD (1999)

The Supreme Court let stand, without comment, a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that a school district was within its rights to discontinue a program of paid advertising signs on school grounds rather than accept a sign promoting the Ten Commandments. This decision agreed that schools can and should control the material posted on its property in an effort to avoid any implication that it is endorsing specific religious ideas — indirect endorsement of certain speech was found to be just as important as direct endorsement.

Stone v. Graham (1980)

In their only actual ruling on this issue, the Supreme Court ruled that a Kentucky law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in each public school classroom in the state to be unconstitutional. This decision stated that any requirement of religious symbols or teachings is sufficient to show governmental endorsement of their message, regardless of who ultimately funds them. Even if the schools hope for the Ten Commandments to be viewed through a secular framework, their historical and religious basis makes them irrefutably religious.