Houston’s Bible monument
The future of a monument containing a Bible on the grounds of Houston’s county courthouse was muddied by a ruling on its constitutionality from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but a pastors’ group promised members would continue fighting if needed.
“The anti-religious bigots who initiated this case and their allies on the bench … can rest assured that the fundamental freedom of religion bought and paid for by the blood of many will not be vanquished on our watch,” said a statement released by Dave Welch, executive director for the Houston Area Pastors Conference, which has been working to defend the Bible.
The dispute is over the monument that was installed in the 1950s in honor of William Mosher, the founder of Star of Hope Mission. It stood for years without controversy, but after it was damaged, then repaired in the 1990s, an atheist alleged it was a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
The rulings at the U.S. District Court level and from a panel of the 5th Circuit concluded, essentially, that the monument had been legal until Christians gathered there to pray.
“The ramifications of this tortured decision are breath-taking and without any historic or legitimate Constitutional rationale,” the pastors’ organization said at the time. “For the court to state that if a private citizen exercises his or her First Amendment rights of religious expression and assembly on public property, that any monument, building or fixed item of any kind that contains religious references becomes ‘establishment of religion’ is simply irrational.”
But when the case was presented to the full 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, its conclusion wasn’t any better, the pastors said. The court found that the case was made moot because the county had removed the monument temporarily for remodeling. The appellate judges also left in place the district court’s conclusion that the monument was illegal.
The court, which issued its decision in three separate opinions, found that since the monument had been moved into storage for remodeling at the county facility, there no longer was an issue to be determined: the atheist who objected to the display of the Bible had gotten her desire.
“Furthermore, it is not known when, where, or under what circumstance the monument and Bible will be restored on the Courthouse grounds,” the majority opinion found, even though, “Harris County specifically has asserted that it will display the monument again after the renovations are complete.”
But a minority of the panel disagreed. “What the majority wholly ignores, however, is the well-settled rule that ‘a defendant’s voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice.’”
“Despite the majority’s assertion to the contrary, it is not at all clear that Harris County’s voluntary removal of the monument caused this case to become moot. Rather, Harris County’s placement of the monument in storage pending completion of the Courthouse renovations mooted this case only if that act made it absolutely clear that the Establishment Clause violation alleged to have occurred in this case could not reasonably be expected to recur,” said the opinion from Judges Emilio Garza, Edith Brown Clement and Priscilla Owen.
The dissent emphasized that “Harris County has made clear its intention to redisplay the monument once the renovations are complete.”
The third separate opinion noted that if the case was made moot, then the district court’s judgment also should have been vacated, but it wasn’t. That opinion noted that the results do “not preclude Harris County from petitioning the district court for a modification of its injunction.”
“Modification of an injunction is appropriate when the legal or factual circumstances justifying the injunction have changed,” the opinion said.
“We think it is disappointing that the court did not vacate Judge Sim Lake’s egregious order to remove the Bible in the first place,” the pastors’ statement said. “The fact that the entire monument has been moved for renovations became the center of their focus, which leaves the main issue of freedom of public religious expression hanging on the hook of Judge Lake’s twisted interpretation of the First Amendment and previous court decisions.”
The pastors’ organization, an inter-racial, inter-denominational organization of pastors, has been active in support of Harris County’s defense of the lawsuit that is led by local atheist activists.
Welch earlier told WND that without a change in the results of the case, America is well on its way to a persecuted Christian church.
“We have history, law and the founding fathers who adopted the Constitution collectively affirming the truth expressed by revered Justice Joseph Story in 1840 that, ‘We are not to attribute this prohibition of a national religious establishment to an indifference to religion in general, and especially to Christianity,’” a statement from the pastor’s group said earlier.
The dispute is over a Bible in the monument, which is designed like a podium. Lake determined the display was unconstitutional, but then the 5th Circuit panel members who heard the case originally carried the decision even further.
That ruling said the monument became an unconstitutional “establishment” after a 2003 rally was held by Christians to defend the display. The court noted that rally involved both prayers and clergy.
The pastors conference said under that reasoning any monument, building or even feature of nature would be an illegal “establishment of religion” if a church ceremony is held there.
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