Federal Appeals Court Decision Bar Texas Courthouse Bible Display

A federal appeals court in April handed Americans United a major victory in a legal battle over a religious display at a Texas courthouse.

By an 11-5 vote, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting as a full panel, ruled that a legal controversy over a religious memorial outside the Harris County Civil Courthouse is moot be­cause the display has been removed by county officials.

More importantly, the panel left in place a lower court ruling that the display violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

“This is great news,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Courthouses should dispense equal justice to all Americans, whether they are Baptists, Buddhists or Bahais. When the holy scriptures of one faith are displayed at a courthouse, that sends a clear message that one religion is favored over others.”

The display prominently featured an open Bible illuminated by neon lighting in a glass-topped case. It was erected in 1956 by a Christian charity to honor William S. Mosher, a Houston businessman and philanthropist. The monument faced the main entrance to the Harris County courthouse and was plainly visible to attorneys and other visitors.

The ruling in Staley v. Harris County leaves in place a 2004 district court decision that the display runs afoul of the church-state separation provisions of the Constitution. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion in a ruling on Aug. 16, 2006.

Kay Staley, a resident of Harris County and an attorney who does business in the courthouse, challenged the display in federal court as a blatant constitutional violation. Americans United represented her in the litigation before the appeals court.

Religious Right groups in the area were furious. In one rather florid statement, a group of area ministers vowed to seek another appeal.

In its statement, the Houston Area Pastor Council referred to “the lawsuit led by local atheist activists and supported by the American’s [sic] United for Separation of Church and State.”

The statement read in part, “The anti-religious bigots who initiated this case and their allies on the bench like [sic] can rest assured that the fundamental freedom of religion bought and paid for by the blood of many will not be vanquished on our watch.”

Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said further appeals are pointless. “The county has now lost this case three times, first before the trial court, then before a three-judge panel of the appeals court and now before the full appeals court,” Khan observed. “At some point, a misguided political agenda must give way to fiscal responsibility.”