The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it would not hear an appeal of an Indiana case dealing with a government-sponsored Ten Commandments monument displayed on public property.
The high court's rejection of Books v. City of Elkhart allows a lower court ruling prohibiting government endorsement of the Commandments to stand.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed a brief in the case at the appeals court level, said this is the latest in a long line of setbacks for supporters of government-sponsored religion.
"Eventually opponents of church-state separation will learn that the law is not on their side," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Religion simply doesn't need the government's help to promote the Ten Commandments.
"Today's announcement should help bring the Religious Right's Ten Commandments crusade to a screeching halt," added Lynn. "The writing on the church-state wall is clear: It's not the government's job to promote religion."
Three justices, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, took the unusual step of issuing a dissent today, announcing they wanted to hear the case. Rehnquist, writing for the three, said the Commandments monument "simply reflects the Ten Commandments' role in the development of our legal system." (The votes of four justices are needed to hear a case.)
In response, Justice John Paul Stevens issued a statement of his own. He wrote that Scalia, Thomas and Rehnquist failed to note that the Elkhart monument begins with the lines, "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS -- I AM the LORD thy God," which appears in a larger type size than the rest of the Commandments. "The graphic emphasis place on those first lines," Stevens said, "is rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference...."
At issue was a Ten Commandments monument erected in front of the city municipal building in Elkhart, Ind., in 1958. Local residents William Books and Michael Suetkamp filed suit against the city in 1998 over the granite tablet, which is 6 feet tall and stands alone in front of the city building.
Last December, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the display violates the separation of church and state.
TV preacher Pat Robertson's legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, was representing Elkhart and encouraged the high court to consider an appeal.
The Supreme Court's decision to not to hear the case represents yet another hindrance for the Religious Right.
Controversy over government endorsement of the religious text has grown dramatically in recent years. Religious Right groups such as the Family Research Council have aggressively lobbied for government displays of the Ten Commandments in city halls, public schools and other public buildings.
In addition, congressional legislation, such as the "Ten Commandments Defense Act," has been introduced several times to allow displays of the Decalogue in public buildings. Similarly, over the past two years, 18 state legislatures have considered bills on the issue.
The Elkhart case had generated interest from attorneys general in seven states, each of whom urged the Supreme Court to hear the Elkhart case, including Alabama, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas.
Even President George W. Bush weighed in on the issue during the 2000 campaign, indicating that he would support changing the law to allow the display of the "standard version" of the Commandments in public schools and other buildings. In fact, there is no standard version -- different faith traditions use different interpretations.
Advocates of government-sponsored religious displays have fared poorly in courts. Over the last three years, state and federal courts have struck down Commandments displays in South Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and Indiana in a separate case.
"Experience shows that state promotion of religion cheapens and demeans genuine faith," concluded Lynn. "There's an easy solution to this controversy: Let religious groups promote the Ten Commandments. The government should stay out of it."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.