A federal appeals court has declared the erection of a Ten Commandments monument unconstitutional, citing the "unusual" circumstances of its placement on the courthouse grounds in a small Oklahoma county.
In its Monday ruling, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted statements by county commissioners about the monument, including one who said, "I'm a Christian and I believe in this."
The court said "a reasonable observer" in the community would know of the religious motivations of the part-time minister who secured private donations for the monument and the quick approval of the commissioners who heard his request for it.
"We conclude, in the unique factual setting of a small community like Haskell County, that the reasonable observer would find that these facts tended to strongly reflect a government endorsement of religion," wrote Circuit Judge Jerome A. Holmes for a unanimous three-judge panel. "In none of their statements did the commissioners attempt to distinguish between the board's position and their own beliefs."
The court distinguished the county setting, where the monument was recently placed among war memorials and other monuments, from the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. The Texas monument stood with other monuments for 40 years before it was challenged, while the Oklahoma monument was challenged within a year of its unveiling.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the suit against the county, hailed the decision, which overturned a lower court ruling. "The government should not be in the business of promoting religious viewpoints," said Daniel Mach, director of litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
The Alliance Defense Fund, which represented the commissioners, said it is considering an appeal. "Small-town government officials have just as much right to express their personal opinions about monuments as those in larger cities," said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot.
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Christianity Today's earlier coverage of Ten Commandments displays and related controversies includes:
Keeping the Commandments | The Supreme Court is thinking more clearly about religious symbols in public life. (March 6, 2009)
Ten Commandments Displays Head Back to Supreme Court | Can a display be government speech without the government actually endorsing the message? (Nov. 12, 2008)
Broken Tablets The Court splits the baby and denies the rule of law. Feel united yet? A Christianity Today editorial (August 2005)
God Reigns—Even in Alabama | Let's not make the Commandments into a graven image. A Christianity Today editorial (October 2003)
Hang Ten? | Thou shalt avoid Ten Commandments tokenism. A Christianity Today editorial (March 2000)
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