A Ten Commandments monument at the Texas state Capitol was approved today by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court issued two historic rulings on the Ten Commandments today, allowing its display at a state Capitol and striking down two displays at courthouses.

The decisions — both 5-4 votes — were the first on the issue since the court ruled 25 years ago that the Commandments could not be displayed in public schools.

At issue was the constitutionality of framed copies of the Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses and a monument on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol. The Kentucky opinions can be read here and the Texas opinions here.

In the Kentucky case, the court declined to ban all displays on government property, saying some, like their own courtroom frieze, are allowed if they have a neutral purpose, such as honoring the nation’s legal history.

But the courthouse displays were deemed a promotion of religion.

Writing for the majority, Justice David H. Souter said, “The touchstone for our analysis is the principle that the First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.”

Souter said, “When the government acts with the ostensible and predominant purpose of advancing religion, it violates tha central Establishment clause value of official religious neutrality.”

Souter was joined in his opinion by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sandra Day O’Connor.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that Commandments displays “have a proper place in our civil history.”

“In the court’s view, the impermissible motive was apparent from the initial displays of the Ten Commandments all by themselves: When that occurs: the Court says, a religious object is unmistakable. Surely that cannot be.”

In a stinging rebuke to the court, Scalia said, “What distinguishes the rule of law from the dictatorship of a shifting Supreme Court majority is the absolutely indispensable requirement that judicial opinions be grounded in consistently applied principle.”

Scalia was joined in his opinion by Chief William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Attorney Mathew D. Staver, who argued the case before the high court in March, said the decision is historic and will have a significant impact on future court decisions regarding the interaction between church and state.

“This battle is far from over,” said Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel. “The court should recognize the Ten Commandments are more than an historical relic. The founders would be outraged that we are even debating the constitutionality of the Ten Commandments.”

Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, said today’s ruling “is not only denigrating to our culture but it undermines the very laws we already have in place.”

“Forbidding the Ten Commandments opens the door to hostility toward religion, which is contrary to the free exercise clause of the First Amendment,” Perkins said. “Today’s court decision is contrary to the constitutional history of this country.”

OK in Austin

In contrast to the Kentucky decision, the court determined the granite monument at the Texas state Capitol in Austin to be a legitimate tribute to the nation’s legal legacy.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist writing for the majority, said,
“Of course, the Ten Commandments are religious – they were so viewed at their inception and so remain. The monument therefore has religious significance.”

The chief justice declared, “Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment clause.”

Rehnquist was joined in his opinion by Scalia, and justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Breyer concurred but filed a separate opinion.

Writing in dissent in the Texas case, Justice John Paul Stevens contended the monument was an improper government endorsement of religion, noting it proclaims in large letters, “I AM the LORD thy God.”

“The sole function of the monument on the grounds of Texas’ State Capitol is to display the full text of one version of the Ten Commandments,” Stevens wrote.

“The monument is not a work of art and does not refer to any event in the history of the state. The message transmitted by Texas’ chosen display is quite plain: This state endorses the divine code of the Judeo-Christian God.”

Justices O’Connor, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Stevens in dissent.

Two additional cases from Ohio pending before the Supreme Court will be determined by today’s ruling.

Earlier this month, a federal court in Maryland declared a monument of the Ten Commandments at a park in Maryland constitutional.

Related column:

Supremes: Shut down ‘offended observers’

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