A Tale Of Two Cities (And Diagrams): Ten Commandments Battles Roil Kentucky And North Dakota

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, opining that displays of the Ten Commandments on public property are patently unconstitutional wrote, "These are not simple messages, like 'In God We Trust,' on U.S. currency. The Ten Commandments are a powerful statement of the covenant God made with his people."

My roommate is a freshly minted high school teacher. Sometimes, while sitting together watching reruns of "Doogie Howser, MD.," I help her plan civics lessons for her students. If it weren't the middle of the summer, I would insist that she craft a Venn Diagram with her kids to teach about the separation of church and state.

I don't know how many of you used Venn Diagrams to compare and contrast two similar concepts back in school, but they're of a pretty simple design. Two interlocking circles create the template, and the kids use the coinciding space to list similarities and the white space to list differences.

In this particular example, Kentucky would be represented by the left circle, and North Dakota would be on the right. Both states are amidst legal battles over displays of the Ten Commandments on public courthouse property and both states are aware of standing law.

In 2005, the Supreme Court issued holdings in two different cases regarding displays of the Ten Commandments on public property: Van Orden v. Perry, and McCreary County v. ACLU.

The decisions are a little confusing, but the bottom line is that government may not display the Ten Commandments for religious purposes.

According to Justice Stephen Breyer, displays are acceptable only if they serve a "mixed but primarily non-religious purpose," and are unconstitutional when they stem from a governmental effort to "substantially promote religion." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, opining that displays of the Ten Commandments on public property are patently unconstitutional wrote, "These are not simple messages, like 'In God We Trust,' on U.S. currency. The Ten Commandments are a powerful statement of the covenant God made with his people."

Today, the folks in McKee, Ky., seem to understand that it is rare, if ever, that the Ten Commandments would be understood as a secular symbol.

Eugene Phillips Jr., with the legal support of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the Jackson County Courthouse asking for an injunction requiring the courthouse to remove the displays. To avoid a bitter legal showdown, the Jackson County Courthouse has obliged.

"We realized that a legal pursuit would be futile," explained Judge-Executive William O. Smith. Seeing as a number of counties in Kentucky have had similar battles and lost them (along with thousands of dollars in lawyer's fees), the county decided it would be best to remove the nine framed copies of the Ten Commandments throughout the courthouse that were erected 10 years ago.

"In terms of the county's decision (to remove the Commandments displays), we are certainly hopeful that this represents abandonment of any religious motivation by the county," ACLU attorney Bill Sharp said.

We hope so as well.

Unfortunately, government officials in Fargo, N.D., aren't so clever. The Red River Freethinkers has filed suit challenging government display of the Ten Commandments on the lawn outside of city hall. The city's attorneys have filed a motion in U.S. District Court asking for the suit to be thrown out due to a lack of standing, a legal concept that gives a citizen the right to sue.

Rather than trying to make this lawsuit go away by denying citizens the right to have their day in court, Fargo officials would do better to emulate Jackson County. Officials there moved the Ten Commandments to private property. People can still see them, but there's no more government connection. It's a perfect solution.

If I were to fill out my own Venn Diagram It would look a whole lot like this: