An Americans United-assisted challenge to the display of an open Bible at a Texas courthouse came to a successful end Nov. 26 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case.
The legal battle centered over a display in front of the Harris County Courthouse. Erected in 1956 by a Christian charity called Star of Hope to honor William S. Mosher, a Houston businessman and philanthropist, the memorial is a glass-topped case housing an open Bible lighted by neon.
Kay Staley, an attorney, county resident and Americans United activist, challenged the display in 2003. A federal district court ruled that it was a violation of church-state separation, and a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals upheld that decision in August of 2006.
County officials then sought review of the panel’s decision by the full “en banc” 5th Circuit of 15 judges. While the case was under consideration, however, the county removed the memorial as part of a renovation of the courthouse.
County officials then argued that the case had become moot, that the lower court’s ruling should be vacated and that the plaintiff should be denied attorneys’ fees. The en banc court agreed that the case is moot, but refused to vacate the trial court’s decision or to deny the plaintiff fees.
The Supreme Court’s action means that it will not hear an appeal by the county to address the en banc court’s ruling.
Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan argued the Harris County v. Staley case before the 5th Circuit panel. Khan noted that Harris County officials must now pay Staley’s attorneys’ fees.
“We are glad that the Supreme Court has put an end to the county’s irresponsible decision to continue litigating this case despite having lost at every step,” said Khan. “This is a victory for church-state separation because it ensures that the monument cannot be returned to its former location, but it is a sad day for the taxpayers of Harris County, who will have to pay for their leaders’ folly.”
The controversy may flare up again. Despite the courtroom loss, some county officials are considering reinstalling the monument at another location.
“I definitely would favor putting it up,” County Judge Ed Emmett told the Houston Chronicle. “Some rulings are silly. We carry money around that says ‘In God We Trust.’”
Another local judge, Steve Radack, said the county might ask U.S. District Judge Sim Lake, who ruled against the monument in 2004, for approval before erecting a new display.