(AP)_Excerpts from two Supreme Court rulings on Monday on the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays on government property.
Justice David H. Souter, writing for the majority in the Kentucky case striking down a pair of displays in courthouses:
In holding the preliminary injunction adequately supported by evidence that the counties' purpose had not changed at the third stage, we do not decide that the counties' past actions forever taint any effort on their part to deal with the subject matter. We hold only that purpose needs to be taken seriously under the Establishment Clause and needs to be understood in light of context; an implausible claim that governmental purpose has changed and should not carry the day in a court of law any more than in a head with common sense. It is enough to say here that district courts are fully capable of adjusting preliminary relief to take account of genuine changes in constitutionally significant conditions.
Nor do we have occasion here to hold that a sacred text can never be integrated constitutionally into a governmental display on the subject of law, or American history. We do not forget, and in this litigation have frequently been reminded, that our own courtroom frieze was deliberately designed in the exercise of governmental authority so as to include the figure of Moses holding tablets exhibiting a portion of the Hebrew text of the later, secularly phrased commandments; in the company of 17 other lawgivers, most of them secular figures, there is no risk that Moses would strike an observer as evidence that the national government was violating neutrality in religion.
Justice Antonin Scalia, dissenting:
What distinguishes the rule of law from the dictatorship of a shifting Supreme Court majority is the absolutely indispensable requirement that judicial opinions be grounded in consistently applied principle. That is what prevents judges from ruling now this way, now that — thumbs up or thumbs down — as their personal preferences dictate. Today's opinion forthrightly (or actually, somewhat less than forthrightly) admits that it does not rest upon consistently applied principle. In a revealing footnote ... , the court acknowledges that the "Establishment Clause doctrine" it purports to be applying "lacks the comfort of categorical absolutes."
What the court means by this lovely euphemism is that sometimes the court chooses to decide cases on the principle that government cannot favor religion, and sometimes it does not. The footnote goes on to say that "in special instances we have found good reason" to dispense with the principle, but "no such reasons present themselves here." It does not identify all of those "special instances," much less identify the "good reason" for their existence.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for majority in Texas case upholding displays on government land:
Of course, the Ten Commandments are religious — they were so viewed at their inception and so remain. The monument, therefore, has religious significance. According to Judeo-Christian belief, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai. But Moses was a lawgiver as well as a religious leader. And the Ten Commandments have an undeniable historical meaning, as the foregoing examples demonstrate. Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause.
Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting:
The judgment of the court in this case stands for the proposition that the Constitution permits governmental displays of sacred religious texts. This makes a mockery of the constitutional ideal that government must remain neutral between religion and irreligion. If a state may endorse a particular deity's command to "have no other gods before me," it is difficult to conceive of any textual display that would run afoul of the Establishment Clause.
The disconnect between this court's approval of Texas's monument and the constitutional prohibition against preferring religion to irreligion cannot be reduced to the exercise of plotting two adjacent locations on a slippery slope. Rather, it is the difference between the shelter of a fortress and exposure to "the winds that would blow" if the wall were allowed to crumble. That wall, however imperfect, remains worth preserving.
Compiled by the Associated Press