February 2004 Church & State | People & Events

Efforts by three Kentucky counties to camouflage Ten Commandments displays by posting other documents alongside the Decalogue failed in December when a federal appeals court struck down the scheme.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Dec. 18 that the displays at courthouses and public schools in McCreary, Pulaski and Harlan counties were still religious in nature.

Officials had originally posted the Ten Commandments without other additional materials. After a federal court struck down those displays, other items were added, including the words to "The Star Spangled Banner," excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower Compact, the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta and the Preamble to the Kentucky Constitution.

The exhibits in the courthouses contained a caption asserting that the Ten Commandments "provide the moral background of the Declaration of Independence and the foundation of our legal tradition."

The appeals court found this assertion unpersuasive, noting that the caption "offers no explanation how the quotation from the Declaration is in any way connected with the Ten Commandments, which say nothing about men being created equal and with the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The only facial similarity between the two documents is that they both recognize the existence of a deity. The concept of a deity, however, is by no means unique to the Ten Commandments or even the Judeo-Christian tradition. Thus, this solitary similarity hardly demonstrates how the Ten Commandments in particular influenced the writing of the Declaration and, hence, the foundation of our country and legal tradition."

Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal group affiliated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, represented the counties and has vowed to appeal the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky v. McCreary County ruling.

In other news about Ten Commandments displays:

A federal court in Georgia has ruled that a government-sponsored Ten Commandments display in Habersham County violates the separation of church and state.

U.S. District Judge William O'Kelley ruled that county officials, who had originally displayed the Ten Commandments standing alone, did not make the display constitutional by adding copies of the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and other documents.

O'Kelley reported that his office received death threats after he issued the ruling in the Turner v. Habersham County case. He noted that he had turned the threats over to U.S. marshals and said, "We've got a place in the south of Atlanta" for people who make such threats, referring to a federal prison.

O'Kelley noted that he was raised in a "very Christian family" but said the threatening message left on his answering machine "wasn't very Christian, I can tell you that."

The Ten Commandments and seven other documents have been posted in the Iowa statehouse. A local Religious Right group, the Iowa Family Policy Center, originally offered the display to the Iowa Judicial Branch Building, but court officials there refused it. House Speaker Chris Rants (R-Sioux City) then agreed to house it in the legislative chamber.

Aside from the King James Version of the Ten Commandments, the display includes the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and other documents.