Since 1958, the city of Elkhart, Indiana, has had a six-foot statue of the Ten Commandments in front of its City Hall. Now the Supreme Court is commanding the city to pull a Moses on the tablets. Actually, the Supreme Court is merely letting stand a federal appeals court decision to remove the monument.
But often, when the Supreme Court decides not to hear a case (called a denial of certiorari), it does so without comment. Not this time. Three conservative justices—Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas—publicly disagreed with the decision to pass on the case. "The monument does not express the city's preference for a particular religion or for religious belief in general," wrote Rehnquist for the three dissenters (PDF | HTML). "It simply reflects the Ten Commandments' role in the development of our legal system."
Their dissent prompted Justice John Paul Stevens to defend the denial (but not until after he grumbled that "dissents from the denial of certiorari should be disfavored"). Stevens noted that the monument starts off in very large type: "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS—I AM THE LORD THY GOD." The actual commandments are in smaller type. "The graphic emphasis placed on those first lines is rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference," Stevens wrote, "particularly when considered in conjunction with those facts that the dissent does acknowledge—namely, that the monument also depicts two Stars of David and a symbol composed of the Greek letters Chi and Rho superimposed on each other that represent Christ."
Attorney Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which represented the city of Elkhart, had initially said in his appeal that the appellate court decision could mean "the removal not only of Elkhart's monument, but hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of other virtually identical monuments across the nation." Now the ACLJ isn't so sure. "Not a whole lot was decided by this denial. But a lot could have been decided," says Francis J. Manion, an ACLJ lawyer who says the decision was too Elkhart-specific to affect Ten Commandments displays elsewhere. "This decision really doesn't by any stretch of the imagination end the case. The decision of the 7th Circuit stands after today and obviously is a formidable weapon in the arsenal of the ICLU [Indiana Civil Liberties Union], but it's not an automatic slam dunk. It's all going to depend on the facts of each case."
In fact, though the organization says the Supreme Court "missed an important opportunity to clarify an issue that has become the center of a national debate," it's now petitioning Congress to "guarantee the right to display the Ten Commandments in public."
Meanwhile, the mayor of Elkhart says his city is keeping the monument no matter what the court says.
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