Supreme Court Bars Ten Commandments at Courthouses

In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said most Ten Commandments displays at courthouses violate the 1st Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Supreme Court bars Ten Commandments at courthouses (AP)

In a narrowly drawn ruling, the Supreme Court struck down Ten Commandments displays in courthouses Monday, holding that two exhibits in Kentucky crossed the line between separation of church and state because they promoted a religious message. The 5-4 decision, first of two seeking to mediate the conflict over religion’s place in public life, took a case-by-case approach to this vexing issue. In the decision, the court declined to prohibit all displays in court buildings or on government property.

The justices left themselves legal wiggle room on this issue, however, saying that some displays — like their own courtroom frieze — would be permissible if they’re portrayed neutrally in order to honor the nation’s legal history. But framed copies in two Kentucky courthouses went too far in endorsing religion, the court held. “The touchstone for our analysis is the principle that the First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,” Justice David H. Souter wrote for the majority. “When the government acts with the ostensible and predominant purpose of advancing religion, it violates that central Establishment clause value of official religious neutrality,” he said. Souter was joined in his opinion by other members of the liberal bloc — Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, as well as Reagan appointee Sandra Day O’Connor, who provided the swing vote.

In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that Ten Commandments displays are a legitimate tribute to the nation’s religious and legal history. Government officials may have had a religious purpose when they originally posted the Ten Commandments display by itself in 1999. But their efforts to dilute the religious message since then by hanging other historical documents in the courthouses made it constitutionally adequate, Scalia said.

Off to teach a class and have not had time to read the opinions, assuming they’re already available online. The outcome and breakdown are not surprising at a glance.

Jeff Quinton is compiling a reaction roundup and has links to some other big decisions coming down today.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    O’Connor’s concurrence in the Ky. case should be included in civics textbooks. I especially like the line about not counting heads when enforcing the First Amendment.

  2. herb says:

    With the recent decisions made by the supreme court, It is just a matter of time until the people rise up in protest and disgust. Until the court starts to make decisions made on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and stops ruling by personal bias, their rulings will get worse and infringe on peoples rights more than ever before.

    It Is Just A Matter Of Time Until The People Rise Up In Rebellion. The Supreme Court is driving this country towards revoloution.