wednesday, december 21, 2005

10 commandments ok'd at courthouse

by dan horn
enquirer staff writer

a cincinnati appeals court ruled tuesday that a kentucky courthouse can display the ten commandments alongside other historical documents, even though the u.s. supreme court recently barred a similar display 50 miles away.

the decision from the u.s. 6th circuit court of appeals means the display in mercer county is permitted as long as the religious document is not given significance over the other documents, which include the bill of rights and the declaration of independence.

a three-judge panel of the court said such a display does not violate the u.s. constitution's prohibition against government establishing a religion - and that the constitution does not demand "a wall of separation between church and state."

"the ten commandments are part of an otherwise secular exhibit," judge richard suhrheinrich wrote for the panel.

"the display of the ten commandments in the mercer county courthouse is not an endorsement of religion," the judge wrote.

supporters of the display praised the decision as affirmation that displays of the ten commandments, which have been debated across the country for several years, are constitutional.

"i do think this lays to rest the idea that the ten commandments are so religious and sacred that there can be no purpose for displaying them that is not religious," said francis manion, the lawyer who argued on behalf of mercer county's display.

opponents, however, said the ruling is a rebuke to the supreme court decision in june that barred almost identical displays at courthouses in pulaski and mccreary counties in southeastern kentucky. mercer county, which is near lexington, is about 50 miles from pulaski county.

in those cases, a 5-4 supreme court majority found that the displays in mccreary and pulaski counties violated the constitution because they were erected with a clear religious purpose.

"this creates a situation where a court of appeals is essentially ignoring a supreme court decision," said scott greenwood, an attorney for the american civil liberties union, which challenged the displays. "it's a slap in the face."

greenwood said the display in mercer county is virtually identical to the other displays and was put up with the same purpose: to promote religion.

but manion said the supreme court rulings in the other kentucky cases left an opening for such displays as long as those who erect them don't make religion a focal point.

in the other counties, the court noted, the displays were put up as pastors and others applauded the effort to bring religion into public places. the judges concluded that did not happen in mercer county, thus making the display there permissible.

the appeals judges also said the aclu misinterpreted the constitution's ban on establishing a religion to mean there can be no acknowledgement of religion by government.

"the aclu makes repeated reference to the 'separation of church and state,' " suhrheinrich wrote. "this extra-constitutional construct has grown tiresome. the first amendment does not demand a wall of separation between church and state.

"our nation's history is replete with governmental acknowledgment and in some cases, accommodation of religion."

judge alice batchelder and district judge walter rice joined suhrheinrich in the decision, though rice concurred only in the result, not the written opinion.

the aclu could challenge the panel's ruling and seek another hearing before the full appeals court. it also could appeal directly to the supreme court, though legal experts have said it's unlikely the court would revisit the ten commandments controversy so soon after its decision in june.

two kentucky lawmakers - rep. stan lee, r-lexington, and rep. rick nelson, d-middlesboro - have filed separate bills that would clear the way to display the ten commandments in public buildings, such as the state capitol in frankfort, as part of broader display of historical markers.

patrick crowley contributed. e-mail

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