Supreme Court bars Ten Commandments at courthouses
The decision doesn’t go as far as I’d like, but it’s progress!
Tuesday, June 28, 2005; Posted: 5:40 p.m. EDT (21:40 GMT)
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court struggled in a pair of 5–4 rulings Monday to define how much blending of church and state is constitutionally permissible, allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed outside the Texas state Capitol but not inside Kentucky courthouses.
In its first rulings on the issue in a quarter-century, the high court said that displays of the Ten Commandments on government property are not inherently unconstitutional. But each exhibit demands scrutiny to determine whether it amounts to a governmental promotion of religion, the court said in a case involving Kentucky courthouse exhibits.
In effect, the court said it was taking the position that issues of Ten Commandments displays in courthouses should be resolved on a case-by-case basis.
In the Kentucky ruling and a second decision involving the positioning of a 6‑foot granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor joined members of the liberal bloc in arguing the displays were unconstitutional. Stephen G. Breyer, normally part of the more liberal wing, joined them in the Kentucky case but voted with the more conservative members to make a 5–4 majority in favor of the Texas display.
Justice Antonin Scalia released a stinging dissent in the courthouse case, declaring, “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.”
The justices voting on the prevailing side in the Kentucky case left themselves legal wiggle room, saying that some displays inside courthouses would be permissible if they’re portrayed neutrally in order to honor the nation’s legal history.
But framed copies in two Kentucky courthouses went too far in endorsing religion, the court held. Those courthouse displays are unconstitutional, the justices said, because their religious content is overemphasized.
In contrast, a 6‑foot-granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol — one of 17 historical displays on the 22-acre lot — was determined to be a legitimate tribute to the nation’s legal and religious history.
“Of course, the Ten Commandments are religious — they were so viewed at their inception and so remain. The monument therefore has religious significance,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority in the case involving the display outside the state capitol of Texas.
“Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment clause,” he said.
Rehnquist was joined in his opinion by Scalia, and justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Breyer filed a separate opinion concurring in the result.
The rulings were the court’s first major statement on the Ten Commandments since 1980, when justices barred their display in public schools. But the high court’s split verdict leaves somewhat unsettled the role of religion in American society, a question that has become a flash point in U.S. politics.
“While the court correctly rejects the challenge to the Ten Commandments monument on the Texas Capitol grounds, a more fundamental rethinking of our Establishment Clause jurisprudence remains in order,” Thomas wrote in a separate opinion.
Dissenting in the Texas case, Justice John Paul Stevens argued the display was an improper government endorsement of religion. Stevens noted in large letters the monument proclaims ‘I AM the LORD thy God.“ ‘
“The sole function of the monument on the grounds of Texas’ State Capitol is to display the full text of one version of the Ten Commandments,” Stevens wrote.
“The monument is not a work of art and does not refer to any event in the history of the state,” Stevens wrote. “The message transmitted by Texas’ chosen display is quite plain: This state endorses the divine code of the Judeo-Christian God.”
Justices O’Connor, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also dissented.
The Supreme Court ended its term Monday with no retirement announcements from any justices. A retirement could come later, however, in a letter to the president or press release.
There has been speculation about whether Rehnquist, 80, will step down. The chief justice has thyroid cancer and uses trachea tube to help him breathe.
Also Monday, the Supreme Court rejected appeals from two journalists who have refused to testify before a grand jury about the leak of an undercover CIA officer’s identity.
The cases asked the court to revisit an issue that it last dealt with more than 30 years ago — whether reporters can be jailed or fined for refusing to identify their sources. (Full story)
The justices’ intervention had been sought by 34 states and many news groups, all arguing that confidentiality is important in news gathering.
Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper and The New York Times’ Judith Miller, who filed the appeals, face up to 18 months in jail for refusing to reveal sources as part of an investigation into who divulged the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
In another ruling from the court, justices ruled that Internet file-sharing services will be held responsible if they intend for their customers to use software primarily to swap songs and movies illegally.
The court rejected warnings that lawsuits will stunt growth of cool tech gadgets such as the next iPod.
The unanimous decision sends the case back to lower court, which had ruled in favor of file-sharing services Grokster Ltd. and StreamCast Networks Inc. on the grounds that the companies couldn’t be sued. The justices said there was enough evidence of unlawful intent for the case to go to trial.
File-sharing services shouldn’t get a free pass on bad behavior, justices said. (Full story)
The Supreme Court also Monday overturned a ruling that required cable operators to open up their high-speed Internet lines to rivals. (Full story)
The decision is a big victory for the Federal Communications Commission and major telecommunications companies, including Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable and SBC Communications.
On the losing side are small Internet service providers, including Earthlink, consumer rights groups, and a host of local governments.
At issue in the case, FCC v. Brand X, was whether cable operators should be required under federal law to lease their cable lines to competitors, much the way local phone companies were forced years ago to open up their lines to long-distance phone companies.
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