A federal appeals court has held that a Bible display outside a Texas county courthouse violates the separation of church and state.
The ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Staley v. Harris County upholds a 2004 district court decision that the display, which prominently features an open Bible illuminated by neon lighting, runs afoul of the Constitution.
The display at the Harris County courthouse was erected in 1956 by a Christian charity called the Star of Hope Mission to honor William S. Mosher, a local businessman and philanthropist. The memorial includes a glass-topped case housing an open Bible. The monument, as the 5th Circuit noted, faces the main entrance to the Harris County courthouse and is, therefore, visible to “attorneys, litigants, jurors, witnesses and other visitors to the Courthouse.”
In the late 1980s, the memorial was vandalized and the Bible removed. The Bible was later restored to the display by Judge John Devine, a local official who was elected to office on a platform of melding religion and government.
In 1995, Devine and his court reporter, Karen Friend, solicited private donations to refurbish the memorial and return a Bible to the display. Devine used a ceremony commemorating the revived display to push his theocratic views. The event included Christian ministers offering prayers and did not encompass other religions.
Kay Staley, a resident of Harris County and an attorney who did business in the courthouse, challenged the display in federal court as a blatant constitutional violation. Americans United represented her in the litigation before the appeals court.
On appeal, Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan told the 5th Circuit panel that the district judge’s ruling should be upheld. She cited Devine’s activity as evidence that the display was being used by the government to promote religion.
In its 2-1 ruling, the 5th Circuit agreed with AU and concluded that the memorial had become a government endorsement of religion. The majority cited the actions of Harris County officials, such as Judge Devine, in unveiling the display.
The court also concluded that an average person walking by the display would assume it was intended to promote religion.
The “reasonable observer would conclude that the monument, with the Bible outlined in red neon lighting, had evolved into a predominantly religious symbol,” observed Judge E. Grady Jolly for the majority.
Staley praised the ruling, telling the Houston Chronicle, “It says we are a country of many religions, and the government should not be promoting one over another. We are not a Christian nation. We are a nation of many religions or no religion.”
AU’s Khan agreed.
“This decision faithfully applies precedent on government-sponsored religious displays,” she said. “Harris County officials have unwisely supported a display that long ago turned into a vehicle to promote Christianity.”
Harris County officials are pursuing an appeal to the entire 5th Circuit of 19 judges. If that fails, they could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.