Last week, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to display a 10 Commandments monument on statehouse grounds. But Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin says that the religious statue is staying right where it is. This isn’t the first time that Ten Commandments statues on Capitol grounds have caused controversy. Here’s a rundown of court cases that have addressed this intersection between religion and state:
New Mexico (2014)
Represented by the ACLU of New Mexico, two followers of the modern pagan faith Wicca sued the city of Bloomfield, N.M. over a 3,000-pound Ten Commandments monument on the City Hall’s front lawn. They viewed this as a governmental endorsement of religion and demanded the removal of the monument. The city argued that private parties funded and erected the monument after the city council passed a resolution allowing for residents to build historical monuments. The plaintiff, argued that city leaders, instead of residents, led the efforts in building the monument. They claimed that the monument was proposed by Kevin Mauzy, who was on the city council when the proposal was made. Additionally, the plaintiff asserted that the majority of the funding came from the city. The Judge ruled for the removal of the monument on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment.
James Green, a local resident of Haskell County, Oklahoma, sued the Haskell County Board of Commissioners over the presence of a Ten Commandments monument on the lawn of the local Courthouse. Green sued on the basis that the monument violated the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Green won the case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that the monument must be removed but it was permitted to stay while the Haskell County Commissioners appealed the case. However, the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal and in March 2010, it was decided that the monument had to go. The monument was moved a few feet away from the courthouse to the lawn of the American Legion.
Summum Church of Pleasant Grove, Utah requested to build their own privately funded statue on the grounds of a public park where a statue of the Ten Commandments was displayed. Summum Church asserted that if the Ten Commandments could be displayed, then they could erect a statue for their church. The petitioners to Summum’s request was the American Center for Law and Justice, who argued that there is a difference between government speech and private speech. They said that while the government was allowed to display the Ten Commandments, it does not need to endorse all private speech. The Supreme Court ruled on the side of the petitioners and against Summum, explaining that a government accepting a privately funded monument in a public park (Ten Commandments statue) and not allowing a different privately funded memorial (Summum’s statue) is an exercise of governmental speech, which is permissible under the First Amendment.
In 1961, the Fraternal Order of Eagles – with the support of filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille - donated the monument to the government, which decided to erect the monument on the state capitol grounds. Thomas Van Orden - a homeless man with a suspended law license - challenged the constitutionality of displaying this monument on Capitol grounds in 2005. It violated, he argued, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In the subsequent case Van Orden v. Perry (that’s Rick Perry), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote that a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol was constitutional. The Court concluded that the monument was constitutional because it had historical, not simply religious, value.
In 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union sued three Kentucky counties for displaying copies of the Ten Commandments in public schools and courthouses. In the ensuing case McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, the ACLU claimed that the religious displays were in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In a 5-4 vote, the district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals voted in the ACLU’s favor: people who passed by the Ten Commandments copies would, the Court concluded, think that the government was endorsing religion.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled in November 2003 that Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s the placement of a 2.6-ton granite Ten Commandment monument in the state building violated the Constitution’s principle of separation of church and state. Moore, however, refused to follow through and did not remove the monument. Due to his insubordination, the nine-member Court of the Judiciary unanimously ruled to remove Moore from office.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Rutherford County, Tennessee Commission for posting the Ten Commandments in the county Courthouse, asserting that it was an unconstitutional promotion of religion. US Judge Robert Echols agreed and ordered for the removal of the Ten Commandments in 2004. However, Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold posted the Ten Commandments in his department’s lobby, next to a copy of the Bill of rights and the Declaration of Independance. Despite the ruling in 2004, Sheriff Arnold was permitted to keep the Ten Commandments up in his office.
In 1980, a group of Kentucky parents filed a claim against Kentucky’s public schools superintendent James Graham. These parents argued that a Kentucky statute that required the posting of a copy of the Ten Commandments in each public school classroom violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In the ensuing case Stone v. Graham, the court ruled 5-2 in the parents’ favor: the Commandments, they decided, “had no secular legislative purpose” and were “plainly religious in nature.”