Permit Commandments Displays, Bush Lawyers Tell Supreme Court

Attorneys with the Bush adminis­tration are urging the Supreme Court to permit government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments.

In a legal brief filed in December, U.S. Justice Department lawyer Paul Clement argued that Commandments displays in courthouses and other government buildings are permissible because they are not intended to promote religion.

“Reproductions and representations of the Ten Commandments have been commonly employed across the country to symbolize both the rule of law itself, as well as the role of religion in the development of American law,” asserts Clement in the brief.

The displays, Clement says, are important in helping to educate Ameri­cans “about the nation’s history and celebrating its heritage.”

The administration brief sides with two Kentucky counties that were ordered to remove Commandments displays from their courthouses. The Supreme Court will hear the case later this year. A separate case, dealing with an outdoor Com­mandments display on the grounds of the state capitol building in Austin, Texas, is also on the high court docket.

Supporters of government-sponsored Commandments displays are arguing that even though the Bible says the Decalogue was personally handed down by God, the list of laws isn’t really religious.

“You don’t find crucifixes in courthouses. You don’t find Nativity scenes in courthouses. You don’t find Stars of David in courthouses. You do find Moses and the Ten Commandments. It has taken on this whole secular importance,” Francis Manion, an attorney with TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, told The New York Sun.

But opponents of the displays say secularizing the Ten Commandments hurts religion.

“It’s absurd, but that is the tenor of what happens to parts of religion the government takes over,” Douglas Laycock, law professor at the University of Texas, told The Sun. “These displays do endorse religion, and the government’s repeated effort to explain them away distorts and undermines their religious significance. It’s actually harmful to religion for these things to be up.”

Laycock, who is writing a legal brief opposing government display of the Ten Commandments for the Baptist Joint Committee, added, “For the seriously re­li­g­ious, the words of the Ten Com­mand­ments are pretty heavy stuff. To have government lawyers all over the country saying they don’t really mean anything…. It’s pretty offensive.”

The Bush administration has been joined in its promotion of Command­ments displays by various Religious Right groups. Briefs were filed by the American Center for Law and Justice, the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.

Attorneys with Americans United will file friend-of-the-court briefs in both the Kentucky and Texas cases. Work on those legal documents was concluding as Church & State went to press.