Monday, July 19, 2004

Religious display standards often vary


Ten Commandments rulings consistently inconsistent

By Jim Siegel
Gannett Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Two federal court rulings this year have struck down attempts to place the Ten Commandments on government or school property in Ohio, but the constitutional debate remains far from resolved.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals last week said Richland County Common Pleas Judge James DeWeese must remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom. In January, the same court ruled Adams County/Ohio Valley Schools must remove granite Ten Commandments stones from the front of four high schools.

"My expectation is we're not going to keep doing case after case," said Jeff Gamso, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which filed these cases.

"At some point it really does become clear that they can't do this stuff."

While the picture may be clearer in Ohio, courts across the nation continue to wrestle with whether placing biblical laws in the public domain violates the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause, which prohibits governments from establishing a religion. Consider:

• A three-member panel of the 8th Circuit Court ruled in February that a Ten Commandments display at a city park in Plattsmouth, Neb., was unconstitutional. But the full court has agreed to vacate that ruling and hear the case again.

• The 3rd Circuit Court ruled in June 2003 that a Ten Commandments plaque on the wall of the Chester County Courthouse in Pennsylvania was a historic artifact and could remain.

• A U.S. District Court in November 2002 ordered Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to remove a granite Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the Alabama State Judicial Building.

• In November 2002, the 5th Circuit Court ruled that the state of Texas could keep a Ten Commandments monument at the state capital.

• The 7th Circuit Court in 2000 and 2001 said in separate cases that granite monuments of the commandments must be removed from outside the Indiana Statehouse and Elkhart, Ind., municipal building.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not stepped in to settle the issue.

Francis Manion, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which defends those who post the Ten Commandments, would like to see the high court get involved.

"But I don't really see that it's going to solve anything," he said. "It will clarify the issue somewhat, but it's not going to end it because every case will turn out to be different.

"Every court has said government may display the Ten Commandments on public property depending on why it does it and how it does it."

For example, courts view schools differently than courthouses. Cases can hinge on what government officials say about the display. Are there other monuments around the Ten Commandments? How prominent is the display? How large is the lettering?

"It's insane the trivia that we get down to," Manion said.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, agrees. He notes the courts recognize a difference between a new, 2-ton monument in a courthouse versus a Ten Commandments plaque on a wall for decades.

"The Supreme Court may say that there is enough out there different about these cases that we may let them percolate for a few more years," he said.

Lynn doesn't think the court should step in. A high-court ruling from 1980 that struck down a Kentucky law requiring the Ten Commandments be posted in every classroom should cover all bases, he said.

But others argue that situations involving children in classrooms bear little resemblance to the lawn of a municipal building.

The nation's high court continues to get more chances at tackling the issue. The case out of Texas and the ruling regarding Adams County Schools have been appealed to the court.

The DeWeese case also is likely headed in that direction, if the full 6th Circuit Court declines to hear the case, Manion said.

"It's anybody's guess on how they would rule on one of these," he said.




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