DeWeese Decalogue Display Derailed

Appeals Court Rules Against Ohio Judge’s Latest Commandments Caper

Richland County Court of Common Pleas Judge James DeWeese probably thought he was being clever in July of 2000 when he posted the Ten Commandments alongside the Bill of Rights in his Ohio courtroom and called the display “The Rule of Law.”

Some local residents were not amused. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, they sued and won. Ordered by a federal court to remove the posters, DeWeese decided to fashion a new display.

Unfortunately, it was even worse.

In his new display, erected in June of 2006, DeWeese posted the Commandments again, calling them “Moral Absolutes.” Next to them he added a document purporting to list the “Moral Relatives” of the philosophy of humanism. A headline over the two read, “Philosophies of Law in Conflict.”

At the bottom of the poster, DeWeese added an editorial comment: “Our Founders saw the necessity of moral absolutes….I join the Founders in personally acknowledging the importance of Almighty God’s fixed moral standards for restoring the moral fabric of this nation.”

Local plaintiffs, again backed by the ACLU, returned to court. And once again, DeWeese came up the loser.

In a unanimous opinion issued Feb. 2, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling and said DeWeese’s new display also violates the separation of church and state because it has a clear religious purpose.

“[T]he poster in this case is not merely a display of the Ten Commandments in [DeWeese’s] courtroom,” wrote Judge Eric L. Clay for the three-judge panel. “It sets forth overt religious messages and religious endorsements. It is a display of the Ten Commandments editorialized by [DeWeese], a judge in an Ohio state court, exhorting a return to ‘moral absolutes’ which [DeWeese] himself defines as the principles of the ‘God of the Bible.’ The poster is an explicit endorsement of religion by [DeWeese]….”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State hailed the American Civil Liberties Union v. James DeWeese ruling.

“Judge DeWeese was improperly promoting his personal religious beliefs in his courtroom, and I’m glad the appeals court put a stop to it,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

Americans United in 2009 filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the appeals court to stop DeWeese from promoting religion in his courtroom. (The brief was joined by The Interfaith Alliance, the Anti-Defamation League, the Hindu American Foundation and the Union for Reform Judaism.)

DeWeese was represented in court by Francis J. Manion, an attorney with TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice. After the ruling, Manion said DeWeese will likely take the case either to the entire 6th Circuit Court or to the Supreme Court.

DeWeese has at least flirted with Christian Reconstructionism, the most extreme manifestation of the Religious Right. Reconstructionists believe in imposing “biblical law” on America based on the legal code of the Old Testament.

The Ohio judge took courses at the Witherspoon School of Law and Public Policy, a seminar run by Vision Forum Ministries in San Antonio, Texas. The group describes the seminar as “a four-day crash course in biblical principles of law and public policy” and tells attendees that they can’t “ignore God’s Word as the foundation for law and liberty.” (See “Roy Moore 2.0?,” March 2010 Church & State.)

AU’s Lynn said the law must treat all citizens equally, regardless of what religious or philosophical views they hold.

“Our courts are supposed to provide equal justice for all, not promote religious law,” Lynn said. “Judges should never send the message that some religious traditions have a preferred place in the courtroom.”