Ten Commandment cases come to an end in Utah, Maryland

Thursday, August 27, 1998

Lawmakers have ended a legal squabble over the constitutionality of a large display of the Ten Commandments outside a Utah courthouse by removing the religious codes.

The Salt Lake County Commission earlier this month ordered a large stone monolith inscribed with the Ten Commandments to be removed from the main entrance of the courthouse. Commission Chairwoman Mary Callaghan said the action was taken for “practical” reasons.

“First of all, we are in the process of vacating the block,” Callaghan said in statement released the day the monolith was removed.

The courthouse property will probably be sold to Salt Lake City. City officials have said they plan to raze all of the buildings and allow businesses and condominiums to be built. A new county courthouse was opened earlier this year.

Callaghan acknowledged that there were other reasons for removal of the religious codes.

“We felt we needed to be careful in separating church and state,” Callaghan said. “If we didn’t remove it or moved it to another location, how large would the forum have to be to provide space for all different views?”

Late last year, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that by permitting the Ten Commandments monument on public property, Salt Lake County had established a public forum for expressions of all kinds of beliefs. The federal appeals court decision came in a suit filed by the Summum, a church formed in Utah in 1975.

Officials for the Summum, whose adherents believe in an ancient Egyptian meditative process and beings from outer space, asked the county in 1994 to allow the church to place a stone monolith with its own religious tenets on the courthouse lawn near the Ten Commandments. The Summum monolith would have been inscribed with seven principles, expressed in such statements as “Summum is Mind, Thought; the Universe is a Mental Creation,” and “Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates,” and “As above, so below; as below, so above.”

County officials denied the Summum’s request, claiming the county was in the process of examining the property for a new jail and “it would not be prudent to engage in any construction or development, of any kind, on that site at this time.”

The Ten Commandments monolith was given to the county in 1971 by The Order of Eagles, a private fraternal order of police. After the Summum was denied a chance to display its own religious tenets on the courthouse lawn, the church filed the federal suit alleging the county had violated its speech and religious-liberty rights.

The U.S. District Court dismissed the Summum’s suit, ruling that the Ten Commandments monolith was primarily secular in nature and therefore the county had not created a forum for religious expression. The appeals court, however, revived the suit, concluding that the county had either endorsed Christianity or created a forum for all kinds of different viewpoints.

Judge Stephanie K. Seymour, writing for the appeals court panel, ruled that the county had transformed the courthouse lawn into a “limited public forum” by allowing the private police order to erect the religious codes.

“The courthouse lawn cannot be characterized as a purely nonpublic forum reserved for specific official uses,” Seymour wrote. “By allowing access to the Eagles, the County has opened the forum to at least some private expression, clearly choosing not to restrict the forum to official government uses.

“Allowing government officials to make decisions as to who may speak on county property, without any criteria or guidelines to circumscribe their power, strongly suggests the potential for unconstitutional conduct, namely favoring one viewpoint over another,” Seymour concluded on behalf of the appeals court panel.

The appeals court panel then sent the case back to the district court for determination as to whether the county had “acted reasonably and not arbitrarily” in denying the Summum’s request.

Removal of the Ten Commandments monument has now rendered the case moot.

Placement of religious symbols on public property has garnered several lawsuits throughout the country recently. In Ohio and Missouri, the American Civil Liberties Union is fighting city seals incorporating other Christian symbols.

This week a county commission in Maryland voted unanimously to dump a scheduled public hearing on a plan to display the Ten Commandments in front of the Washington County courthouse. The commission’s decision came about a week after it had voted to set the hearing. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland had warned the commission that a vote to place the religious codes on public property would result in litigation.

After the vote Tuesday, Commissioner James Wade said: “It is clear this is not allowed by our Constitution – it’s beyond me why the public hearing was called in the first place.”