Commentary: "Speech rights harmed when Court bars Ten Commandments"

Jul 23, 2010

McCreary County, KY – In the 2005 US Supreme Court case, McCreary County vs ACLU of Kentucky, government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments in county courthouses were ruled unconstitutional. The Court held that the Ten Commandments indicate a religious object unless integrated with a secular message - for example: an analytical or historical connection as in displays like The Bill of Rights or The Magna Carta. In early June, the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban, refueling advocates both for and against the issue. Commentator Richard Nelson opposes the decision, saying speech rights are harmed as a result.

Note: The views expressed in commentaries are of the opinion of the commentator and don't necessarily reflect the views of WKMS.

When the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals denied restoration of a Ten Commandments display in the McCreary County Courthouse on June 9, it left many free speech advocates in disbelief. After all, the same court had ruled in January that an identical display could remain in the Grayson County Courthouse. So what gives?

The main issue percolating in this decade-long legal dispute centers on whether the intent of posting the original display was secular or religious in purpose. If the intent is secular and educational, the display is okay. But when the men and women in black robes suspect even a hint of religious motivation, then the displays are deemed contraband and cast into figurative purgatory. Judge Eric Clay wrote for the 2-1 majority and said that McCreary and Pulaski Counties failed to provide a "valid secular purpose" for the revamped display. "The fact that Defendants seek to minimize the residue of religious purpose does not mean that Plaintiffs do not suffer continuing irreparable injury so long as the display remains on the walls of the county courthouses," Clay said.

Residue? Irreparable injury? Sounds like there has been some kind of a mold outbreak in the county courthouse jeopardizing the very health of occupants. While Judge Clay didn't order the courthouses to scrub down with Lysol, sanitizing of another sort by secularists has definitely taken place.

In April, Federal District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that it is illegal for governing bodies to officially recognize the National Day of Prayer. Another federal judge ruled in late May that a public high school graduation ceremony could not take place in a Connecticut church largely because it had numerous religious symbols and large crosses that couldn't be covered. Of course, seeing a large cross could cause nightmares and trauma for graduating seniors and their families.

In cases like these, secularists invoke the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from establishing a religion. But a school board planning a graduation ceremony is not Congress. Nor is a local governing body deciding what to hang on the Courthouse walls. And it has yet to be explained how merely posting the Ten Commandments establishes a religion. Don't Jews, Christians and Muslims all honor the Ten Commandments? And what does the judge mean by "irreparable harm" anyway?

To arrive at Clay's conclusion, one has to do great violence to our history.

Our political fabric is enmeshed with acknowledgment of God. Just pull a dollar bill out of your wallet or purse and you see that Caesar's image has been superseded by our National Motto: "In God We Trust." (Please note that pocketfuls of cash have yet to cause "irreparable harm" to atheists and ACLU attorneys who gladly accumulate as much of it as they can often at taxpayer expense).

Until recent decades, we have been able to freely acknowledged God in the public schools which were birthed out of 17th century colonial churches desiring to teach children to read the Bible. Many of these same classrooms had the Ten Commandments posted on their walls, including Kentucky's until the U.S. Supreme Court banned them in 1980. The pilgrims and the Continental Congress gave us days of thanksgiving and prayer. In modern times, Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation in a Christian prayer on D-Day. Nobody asserted he was trying to establish a religion.

Secularists succeeded in leaving a void on the McCreary and Pulaski Courthouse walls, but the larger result is that they have left a vacuum in American history one replete with reference to God and where citizens can freely acknowledge Him both inside and outside the public square.

Yet few understand the stakes in this struggle. Judge James Ryan, the lone dissenter in the McCreary case said, "The result, I fear, is that federal courts will continue to close the Public Square to display of religious symbols as fundamental as the Ten Commandments, at least until the Supreme Court rediscovers the history and meaning of the words of the religion clauses of the First Amendment."

Richard Nelson is a policy analyst with The Family Foundation of Kentucky. He resides in Cadiz with his wife and children.