Ten Commandments Statute Becomes Monumental Controversy

By Kozlowski, James | Parks & Recreation, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Ten Commandments Statute Becomes Monumental Controversy


Kozlowski, James, Parks & Recreation


Eagles Ten Commandents monument causes the need for a Supreme Court decision.

On Oct. 12, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a 2003 decision issued by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Van Ordon v. Perry, 351 F.3d 173 (5th Cir. 2003). In this case, Van Ordon, a resident of Austin, Texas, was seeking to have a monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments removed from the grounds of the Texas State Capitol. As characterized in Van Ordon's Supreme Court brief, the Fifth Circuit had concluded that "Texas had permissible secular purposes in placing the monument on government property: honoring the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the monument's donor, for its work against juvenile delinquency, and commemorating the Ten Commandments' 'influence upon the civil and criminal laws of this country.'"

In granting Van Ordon's petition to review this decision, the Supreme Court framed the constitutional question posed by the facts of this case as follows: "Whether a large monument, O feet high and 3 feet wide, presenting the Ten Commandments, located on government property between the Texas State Capitol and the Texas Supreme Court, is an impermissible establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment."

Oral arguments in Van Ordon v. Perry were scheduled for March 2. On that same date, the Supreme Court was also scheduled to hear oral arguments in another Establishment Clause case, McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, involving display of the Ten Commandments in a county courthouse. The Bush Administration filed an amicus (friend of court) brief supporting the "display of historical documents that influenced the development of American law," including the Ten Commandments.

In so doing, the administration's brief claimed an interest in retaining "numerous displays of the Ten Commandments and similar religious symbols on federal property, including in federal courthouses, the United States Capitol, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, national monuments and national park lands."

Echoing these same sentiments, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) lias weighed in with the city of Frederick, Md., in a recent case challenging the validity of a sale of a small parcel of parkland containing a monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments. As reported by CNS-News.com, senior counsel for ACLJ, Francis Manion, asserted a view similar to the position taken by the Hush Administration: "Many courts have recognized that the Commandments displayed in conjunction with other historical documents are constitutionally appropriate and does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution."

In this particular instance, Manion expressed ACLJ's desire "to convince the court that the monument in Frederick merely reflects the acknowledgement that the Commandments served as a basis for western law, and have played an important role in the development of our legal system." Further, Manion characterized the monument in the Frederick park as a "part of the fabric of this community for nearly 50 years."

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Fraternal Order of the Eagles had given a number of similar Ten Commandments monuments to towns and cities as part of a project begun by a Minnesota juvenile court judge, who sawthe Ten Commandments as the cure for juvenile delinquency. Since that time, a number of federal and state courts have grappled with the question of whether such displays in public parks violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The controversy in Frederick, Md., is just the latest in a growing line of federal court cases involving constitutional challenges to the Eagles' Ten Commandment monuments in public places, including parks.

In one of the more recent opinions, ACLU Nebraska Foundation v. City of Plattsmouth, No. 02-2444 (8th Cir. 2004), a federal appeals court held that "the words and symbols on the monument" conveyed a message which was "undeniably religious. …

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