Kentucky ACLU sues over relocation of Ten Commandments monument

Wednesday, July 12, 2000

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky and four religious leaders have sued in federal court, challenging the constitutionality of a state law that calls for placement of a Ten Commandments monument on state Capitol grounds.

In April, both the Kentucky House and Senate passed Senate Joint Resolution 57, a section of which mandates the placement of the Ten Commandments monument near the landmark Floral Clock on Statehouse grounds.

The law provides that the monument, which has been stored in the Capitol building for many years, is “to be made a part of a historical and cultural display which shall include the display of this resolution to remind Kentuckians of the Biblical foundations of the laws of the Commonwealth.”

Gov. Paul E. Patton signed the measure April 21, and the law is scheduled to take effect July 15. Sponsors of the bill say that its intent is “to address the suppression and censorship of American history regarding Judeo-Christianity’s influence on Colonial America and on the development of American law and civil government.”

The plaintiffs contend, on the other hand, that relocation of the monument constitutes impermissible government endorsement of religion in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Those bringing suit in Adland v. Russ include the Kentucky ACLU and its executive director Jeff Vessels, a rabbi, a Presbyterian minister, a Baptist minister and a retired Methodist minister.

“Each plaintiff believes that religious freedom can best be preserved if government remains strictly neutral towards religion, neither favoring nor disfavoring religion or any religious sect,” the complaint reads. “The Ten Commandments monument has no secular purpose, but rather has a solely religious purpose.”

The legislation states that the Ten Commandments themselves serve a secular purpose as the basis of civil and criminal law.

Twenty years ago the U.S. Supreme Court in Stone v. Graham struck down a Kentucky state law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in every public elementary and secondary school.

“The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature,” the high court concluded in Stone. “The Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact.”

The high court in Stone, however, did say that the commandments could be “integrated into the school curriculum, where the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.”

The state’s most recent Ten Commandments legislation must be viewed within this context, said David Friedman, general counsel for the Kentucky ACLU, in a news release. “It was enacted after the ACLU of Kentucky sued local governments to prevent them from placing the Ten Commandments on courthouse and school walls. The Legislature clearly was taking sides in that debate, choosing the endorsement of religious texts over American principles forbidding government from doing so.”

Kathleen Flynn, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said that “the Ten Commandments can be constitutionally displayed, but Kentucky officials have not learned how to do so. This definitely appears to be the year of the Ten Commandments in the state of Kentucky.”

Flynn pointed out that lawsuits have already been filed to challenge the posting of the commandments in two county courthouses and one school.

Other provisions of the state law due to take effect July 15 encourage the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools and other public buildings.

The suit asks the federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order preventing enforcement of the resolution. According to Flynn, the hearing for the order is set for tomorrow.

Calls to the governor’s office were not returned.

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