Commandments Controversies: A Battle Of Biblical Proportions

Legal Battles Over Government Display Of The Decalogue Are Brewing Nationwide

Battles over government display of the Ten Commandments are currently brewing in several communities around the nation. A recent survey by Americans United's Legal Department and Church & State uncovered the following legal disputes:

Allegheny County, Pa.: Attorneys with Americans United are assisting two local men, Andy Modrovich and James Moore, in challenging the display of a bronze Ten Commandments plaque at the county courthouse. In addition to the Decalogue, the tablet contains Jesus' "great commandment" from the New Testament. The case, Modrovich v. Allegheny County, is pending in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Harlan County, Pulaski County and McCreary County, Ky.: In 1999, officials in several Kentucky counties ordered that the Ten Commandments be posted in courthouses and public schools, sparking a string of lawsuits from the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Although a federal judge declared the actions unconstitutional, local officials have tried to save the displays by posting other documents alongside them.

The counties are receiving legal assistance from Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based Religious Right legal outfit affiliated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell. U.S. District Judge Jennifer B. Coffman ordered Liberty Counsel and the ACLU to try to find a compromise on the matter, but in May the groups advised the court that they could not do so. In June, Coffman ruled against the displays. (Doe v. Harlan County School District, ACLU v. Pulaski County and ACLU v. McCreary County)

In a separate Ten Commandments dispute from Kentucky, state officials are in federal court trying to win the right to display a six-foot stone commandments tablet at the capitol building in Frankfort. U.S. District Judge Joseph M. Hood ruled in July of 2000 that the display would be unconstitutional. (Adland v. Russ)

Indianapolis and Lawrence County, Ind.: Last year the Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Gov. Frank O'Bannon after he announced plans to erect a 7-foot Ten Commandments monument at the statehouse. U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker declared the display unconstitutional, and in reaction, officials in Lawrence County offered to erect the monument at their local courthouse. Barker declared that display unconstitutional as well. (Indiana Civil Liberties Union v. O'Bannon and Kimbley v. Lawrence County)

Knox County, Ind.: Acting on behalf of two anonymous plaintiffs, the ICLU is challenging the display of a Ten Commandments monument in Knox County, Ind. The marker was erected by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1958. (Doe v. Knox County)

Adams County, Ohio: The county's board of education voted to erect Ten Commandments monuments in front of four new schools in 1997, sparking an ACLU lawsuit. Local officials, in an effort to save the displays, have erected other ancient legal texts around them. (Baker v. Board of Education of Adams County)

Richland County, Ohio: A local judge, James DeWeese, is under fire for displaying a large Ten Commandments poster in his courtroom. DeWeese displays the Decalogue alongside the Bill of Rights and sayings from Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison under a sign reading "The Rule of Law." TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) is defending DeWeese. (ACLU of Ohio v. Ashbrook)

Grand Junction, Colo.: The ACLU of Colorado has filed suit against the city's display of the Ten Commandments in front of City Hall. The case, ACLU v. Grand Junction, is currently pending in federal court.

Plattsmouth, Neb.: The ACLU of Nebraska filed suit in April challenging the city's display of a Ten Commandments marker in a city-owned park. The case is pending in federal court. (ACLU v. Plattsmouth)

Ogden, Utah: A religious group called SUMMUM is suing the city for displaying a Ten Commandments marker donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1966 while refusing to add a sign listing the "Seven Aphorisms of SUMMUM." A federal court ruled in January that Ogden may continue to display the Ten Commandments without also erecting the SUMMUM document. The case is on appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. (SUMMUM v. City of Ogden)

Supporters of government promotion of religion are pushing a legislative strategy as well. Three states Kentucky, South Dakota and Indiana have passed bills authorizing Ten Commandments displays in government buildings, and numerous other states have considered them recently.

Congress has also gotten in on the act. In June of 1999, the U.S. House of Representatives, voting 248-180, passed a resolution approving of Ten Commandments displays in government buildings and public schools. The resolution does not have the force of law, and the companion measure in the Senate was so watered down by opponents that even its sponsor, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, called it meaningless.