June 27, 2005

Supreme Court Rules on Ten Commandments Displays

Survey Shows Broad Public Support for the Displays, But Differences Exist Across Religious Traditions

A closely divided Supreme Court today issued two decisions on the legality of Ten Commandments displays in public buildings and on public property. The court struck down the Decalogue displays in two Kentucky courthouses but upheld the constitutionality of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol building.

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A recent survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in August 2004, finds that Americans overwhelmingly support displaying the Ten Commandments on public property, with more than seven-in-ten saying they believe such displays are proper. Despite this broad support for displaying the commandments, important differences exist in the way members of different religious groups view this issue. View a summary of the poll findings.

In February, the Forum published an in-depth backgrounder on the commandments cases, which provides legal and historical analysis of the issues in Van Orden and McCreary County. View the backgrounder. An addendum to the backgrounder analyzing the court’s decisions and their possible impact on future cases will soon be available on the Forum’s Web site, www.pewforum.org.

On Feb. 24, 2005, the Forum hosted a discussion on the merits of the case, featuring Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas School of Law and Jay Sekulow, chief council for the American Center for Law and Justice. Read the full transcript of the discussion.

In the Kentucky case, McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union, the court ruled 5-4 that the placement of Ten Commandments displays in two county courthouses was an example of the government acting “with the ostensible and predominant purpose of advancing religion,” and thus was a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Justice David Souter wrote the majority opinion, with Justices Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor joining. The court’s more conservative wing – Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy – defended the constitutionality of the Kentucky displays.

The decision in the second case, Van Orden v. Perry, was also 5-4, with Justice Breyer joining the conservatives in support of the Texas Monuments. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, defended the placement of the monument, which has been on the Capitol grounds since 1961. “Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause,” he wrote.

With these two decisions, the court continues its recent tradition of tackling religious display issues on a case-by-case basis. “In these and similar recent cases, it’s hard to find a clear line between the acceptable acknowledgement of religion and the unacceptable endorsement of religion,” said David Masci, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life delivers timely, impartial information to national opinion leaders on issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs; it also serves as a neutral venue for discussions of those matters. The Forum is a project of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.