S.C. judge invalidates posting of Ten Commandments in county building

Friday, March 26, 1999

A South Carolina judge has ordered a county council to remove a plaque containing the Ten Commandments from its chambers, saying the religious codes subvert the separation of church and state.

In spring 1997, the Charleston County Council voted to display the religious codes in its chambers. Weeks later the council placed a plaque of the Ten Commandments just outside its chambers.

Shortly after the codes' placement, three Charleston residents, represented by the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sued the county asking for an injunction against the placement of the codes and for a declaratory judgment that such placement would run afoul of the First Amendment.

In a 10-page opinion released yesterday, state Judge R. Marley Dennis Jr. cited several U.S. Supreme Court decisions in finding that “this court has little choice but to find that the resolution at issue, and the subsequent display of the Ten Commandments, were in violation of the Establishment Clause because they endorse religion in general and Judeo-Christianity in particular.”

Dennis noted that the plaque had been “displayed at eye level, and was visible upon entering and exiting the Chambers.”

State attorneys had argued that the plaque was surrounded by secular items, such as pictures of former council chairmen. But Dennis concluded that the plaques were not part of a larger display and that the pictures did not cloak the codes' religious meanings or the appearance that the county council was endorsing religion.

Citing the high court's 1984 ruling in Lynch v. Donnelly, Dennis wrote that “the establishment clause prohibits government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief or from 'making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community.'”

Dennis, moreover, said the commandments had been deemed an “undeniably sacred text” by the high court and that “the purpose and effect of their posting is to urge the audience to 'read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey' them, which is an impermissible state objective.”

Ayesha Khan, an attorney for Americans United, said the decision supported the principles embedded in the First Amendment.

“It's an important ruling that sends a clear message that government cannot endorse religion by endorsing the Ten Commandments,” she said.

Sam Howell, the county's attorney, has said an appeal would not be filed.