ACLU of Ohio Foundation v. DeWeese

AU's Role: 
AU's Involvement Began: 
January 2010
Status: 

In 2000, James DeWeese, a judge of the Richland County Court of Common Pleas, hung in his courtroom a poster of the Ten Commandments opposite a poster of the Bill of Rights, presenting each as “the rule of law.”  The ACLU sued DeWeese in 2001 for violating the Establishment Clause.  In 2002, a federal district court held that the display violated the First Amendment and issued a permanent injunction directing DeWeese to remove the Ten Commandments poster.  The Sixth Circuit affirmed in 2004, and DeWeese complied with the injunction.  

In 2006, DeWeese displayed another poster, entitled “Philosophies of Law in Conflict,” in his courtroom.  The left-hand column of the poster, entitled “Moral Absolutes,” includes the text of the Ten Commandments.  The right-hand column of the poster, entitled “Moral Relatives,” includes statements characterized by DeWeese as “Humanist Precepts.”  The poster includes a statement by DeWeese that society is “paying a high cost in increased crime and other social ills for moving from moral absolutism to moral relativism” and that he “personally acknolwedg[es] the importance of Almighty God’s fixed moral standards for restoring the moral fabric of this nation.”  The ACLU sued again, and in October 2009 the district court held that the display of the poster violated the federal Establishment Clause and a parallel provision of the Ohio Constitution because it both lacked a secular purpose and constituted a governmental endorsement of religion. 

DeWeese appealed to the Sixth Circuit.  On January 26, 2010, we filed an amicus brief, joined by other civil-liberties organizations, which argued (a) that the ACLU has standing to challenge the display because one of its members had direct, unwelcome contact with the display, and (b) that DeWeese’s attempt to characterize his religious display as legal or philosophical “theory” is simply one in a long line of efforts to dress religious doctrine in secular clothing. 

Most Recent Developments: 

Oral argument was held on December 1, 2010.  On February 2, 2011, the Sixth Circuit upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the plaintiffs, agreeing that DeWeese’s primary purpose in hanging the display was religious — based on the overtly religious text of the display and DeWeese’s prior history of Establishment Clause violations — and that the display had the effect of endorsing religion because it explicitly favored religious over non-religious perspectives.