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The Kentucky case

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The background of the Kentucky case:

McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (03-1693): Officials in McCreary, Pulaski and Harlan counties in Kentucky had placed framed donated copies of the the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments from the King James Version of the Bible in the halls of two county courthouses and some school buildings. Each "...initially consisted of 'framed copies of one version of the Ten Commandments which were not part of larger educational, historical or retrospective exhibits'." 1 That is, the Decalogue was originally hung by itself, without any surrounding documents representing concepts from other religions or from secular sources. After a lawsuit was filed, the officials modified the displays to include many documents with a Judeo-Christian religious theme, and a few secular documents. The modified displays remained overwhelmingly religious in content.

Most court decisions involving cultural displays which include documents from both multiple religions and secular sources have found them to be constitutional. However, this is an unusual case, because the only religious tradition portrayed is Judeo-Christianity, and because of its strongly religious emphasis. Presumably, if texts from multiple religions and more secular sources had been included, the lower courts would have found the displays to be constitutional. But with only one religious tradition displayed, and with its stress on religion, its constitutionality is in doubt. The display implies government approval of Judaism and Christianity as the only valid religion, the rejection of other religions, and the relative unimportance of secular sources of law.

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The initial trial:

The route to the U.S. Supreme Court took many twists:

bullet Seven individuals from the three counties and the American Civil Liberties Union initiated a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky on 1999-NOV-18.
bullet Shortly after the complaint was filed, the court displays were changed to "include secular historical and legal documents," some of which were excerpted to "include only that document's reference to God or the Bible with little or no surrounding text." 1 The additions included three mainly secular documents:
bullet An excerpt from the Declaration of Independence
bullet The Preamble to the Constitution of Kentucky
bullet the Mayflower Compact.

It also included six documents with religious content -- all relating to Judeo-Christianity:
bullet The national motto of "In God We Trust"
bullet A page from the Congressional Record of 1983-FEB-02, declaring 1983 to be the Year of the Bible and including a copy of the Ten Commandments
bullet A proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln designating 1863-APR-30 a National Day of Prayer and Humiliation.
bullet An excerpt from President Lincolnís "Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible" reading: "The Bible is the best gift God has ever given to man."
bullet A proclamation by President Ronald Reagan marking 1983 the Year of the Bible. 1

bullet The counties then filed motions to dismiss the case.
bullet The district court denied the motions and issued a temporary injunction, ordering that the displays be removed, and that no similar displays be installed. The court ruled that "the amended displays failed the 'purpose' and 'effect' prongs of the three-part test set out in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), in that they lacked a secular purpose and had the effect of endorsing religion. The court ordered that the displays be removed 'immediately' and further ordered that 'similar displays' could not be erected in the future." 1
bullet The defendants then installed new displays containing the Decalogue and the full texts of other secular historical and legal documents. Most of the latter had a religious theme.
bullet The plaintiffs filed a motion to hold the counties in contempt of court.
bullet The defendants responded to the motion by stating that the new displays were not similar to the earlier ones. They "contended that the 'purpose for the display is to educate citizens of the county regarding some of the documents that played a significant role in the foundation of our system of law and government'."
bullet The court rejected the contempt motion and urged the parties to negotiate a settlement with each other.
bullet The parties were unable to reach an agreement.
bullet The district court issued a second injunction on 2001-JUN-22, ruling that "...the new displays were 'clearly outside the bounds of these permissible uses and [were] violative of the Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

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The appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals:

bullet The counties appealed to a panel of three judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
bullet The plaintiffs won their case on appeal by a vote of 2 to 1. The court ruled, in part: "...the very text in which the Ten Commandments are contained in the schoolhouse displays manifests a patently religious purpose. Defendants' courthouse displays also manifest a religious purpose because they utterly fail to integrate the Ten Commandments with a secular subject matter. When distilled to their essence, the courthouse displays demonstrate that Defendants intend to convey the bald assertion that the Ten Commandments formed the foundation of American legal tradition. The Supreme Court has held, however, that 'such an avowed secular purpose is not sufficient to avoid conflict with the First Amendment' when no effort has been made to integrate the Ten Commandments with a discussion or display of a secular subject matter. Stone, 449 U.S. at 41. Since Defendantsí displays make no such effort, the district court correctly concluded that Defendants' primary purpose was religious....Defendants' courthouse displays assert that the Ten Commandments provide 'the moral background of the Declaration of Independence and the foundation of our legal tradition.'...The displays emphasize a single religious influence, with no mention of any other religious or secular influences. This fact confirms the rectitude of the district courtís conclusion that Defendantsí purposes were religious."  1
bullet The counties appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who decided on 2004-DEC-15 to hear oral arguments in the Kentucky and Texas cases.

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Amicus Curiae (Friend of the Court) briefs:

Amicus Curiae briefs were filed with the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) by:

bullet National School Boards Association
bullet Rutherford Institute
bullet Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund
bullet Judicial Watch
bullet Federal government
bullet Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
bullet Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs
bullet Eagle Forum Education & Legal Defense Fund
bullet Twenty one states joined together in a single brief: AL, FL, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, MN, MO, MS, OH, OK, NM, PA, SC, TX, UT, VA, WI and WY.
bullet Faith and Action
bullet Pacific Justice Institute
bullet Thomas More Law Center
bullet Foundation for Moral Law, Inc.
bullet American Legion
bullet American Center for Law and Justice
bullet Family Research Council
bullet Focus on the Family
bullet WallBuilders, Inc.
bullet American Liberties Institute
bullet American Humanist Association
bullet Anti-Defamation League
bullet American Atheists
bullet Atheist Law Center
bullet Freedom From Relgion [sic] Foundation
bullet Council for Secular Humanism
bullet International Academy of Humanism
bullet Americans United for Separation of Church and State
bullet Legal Historians and Law Scholars
bullet Baptist Joint Committee. 2

On 2005-MAR-02. the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the two cases.

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References used:

  1. "American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky v. McCreary County, Kentucky, 01-5935," United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, at:
  2. "McCreary County, Kentucky, et al. v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky," U.S. Supreme Court, at:
  3. "Top Court to Weigh Ten Commandments Cases," Associated Press, 2005-FEB-26, at:

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Site navigation: Home > Religious LawsTen Commandments > 2005 SCOTUS cases > here

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Copyright © 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2005-MAR-02
Latest update: 2005-JUN-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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