Fearing an expensive legal challenge from the ACLU, a county commissioner begrudgingly ordered removal of a display of the 23rd Psalm from a courthouse.
Lawyers with the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union charged that displaying the tapestry at the Oglethorpe County Courthouse in Lexington, Ga., essentially is the same as displaying the Ten Commandments, the Athens, Ga., Banner-Herald reported.
As WorldNetDaily reported, the U.S. Supreme Court this summer ruled against the Decalogue’s display in a Kentucky courthouse.
County Commission Chairman Robert Johnson directed an employee Monday to remove the Psalm, displayed on a tapestry about 4 feet by 5 feet.
“I sent somebody to take it down, which I think is the wrong thing to do. But I have to do it,” Johnson told the Georgia paper.
An embroidery featuring the 23rd Psalm, left, hangs at the Oglethorpe County Courthouse (courtesy: Athens Banner-Herald)
The display hung for about a month in a hall outside the office of Geneva Stamey, the county clerk of courts.
But the county wanted to avoid the kind of lawsuit that cost Georgia’s Barrow County $265,000 in an attempt to maintain a courthouse display of the Ten Commandments.
Johnson said, regarding the tapestry controversy, “It’s a shame to say you’re not willing to [fight it], but when you know you’re going to lose before you start, there’s no need to fight the battle.”
Johnson added, “I’m not in agreement with the courts. I think we should have the right to do it, but the Supreme Court says we don’t.”
Stamey said she hung the tapestry to cover an unsightly window in the hallway and because she wanted to share her faith and the 23rd Psalm.
“I love it because of what it says,” Stamey told the Banner-Herald.
But the ACLU insisted displaying the religious text is unconstitutional because it amounts to the government promoting one religion over another.
“What you have there is government taking a stand on religion, putting their stamp of approval on a particular religion,” said Maggie Garrett, an ACLU staff attorney.
Proponents of such displays, however, contend the ACLU and its allies misread the Constitution’s First Amendment, arguing it only bars Congress from establishing a state religion.
The clause says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Banner-Herald said there was no complaint about the tapestry until a reporter began asking about it Monday.
ACLU-Georgia Legal Director Gerry Webber said he had never heard of a case challenging a display of a 23rd Psalm text, but said it’s a “potential violation” of the Constitution.
“That particular passage of the Bible is distinctly religious,” he said.
In June, a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court issued two historic rulings on the Ten Commandments, 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 high 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 the 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.
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