Thou Shalt Not Place Thy Religious Symbols on Government Property

March 5, 2010

The Ten Commandments—the ultimate “top-ten list” in the eyes of most Christians and Jews—have been around for thousands of years, but they will no longer be present outside a county courthouse in Haskell County, Oklahoma. On March 1st, the Supreme Court declined to review a unanimous decision by the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals which held that the county commissioners advanced their personal religious beliefs by erecting the monument.

In a June 2009 decision, the appeals court 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 has having the impermissible principle or primary effect of endorsing religion.” 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 reflects a government endorsement of religion,” the court ruled the monument unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma filed the original lawsuit challenging the monument in October 2005 on behalf of an Oklahoma resident. The case, Haskell County Board of Commissioners v. James W. Green, was originally decided against the plaintiffs in August 2006. The ACLU appealed the case to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which unanimously reversed the prior decision.

The larger question becomes: What now? While we often focus on Supreme Court decisions as setting a precedent, does SCOTUS’s decision not to review the case also not also set a precedent? By declining to review the case, the high court has essentially determined that it finds nothing wrong with the ruling in Haskell. This does—in many ways—set a precedent for future courts to follow in deciding similar cases. And while the arguments of Haskell are in some ways unique, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled on the basic principle of separation of church and state, and it has unanimously stated what can be viewed as a secular commandment. “Thou shalt not place thy religious symbols on government property.”

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