Judge James DeWeese

An Ohio judge hung a poster in his courtroom reasserting the law’s historical reliance on moral absolutes, only to have the American Civil Liberties Union sue – and win – because one of their lawyers was offended by the poster’s reference to the Ten Commandments.

According to court documents, Judge James DeWeese of Richland County, Ohio,
displayed a poster in his courtroom entitled “Philosophies of Law in Conflict.” The poster identifies two opposing moral and legal philosophies, moral relativism vs. moral absolutes, and indicates that DeWeese supports the position of moral absolutes.

The poster uses a version of the Ten Commandments as symbolic of moral absolutes and a set of statements from sources such as the Humanist Manifesto as symbolic of moral relativism.

Two years after the poster was hung, the ACLU sued DeWeese because a regular petitioner of the court and ACLU member, Bernard Davis, allegedly suffered legal injury by the “inappropriate expression of a religious viewpoint … in a public building.”

Now the American Center for Law & Justice is petitioning the Supreme Court to overturn an appellate ruling that Davis has grounds to sue simply because he’s “offended.”

The ACLJ cites a similar Supreme Court case (Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 1982) that has already ruled “psychological” consequences from observing something with which one disagrees are insufficient grounds for a lawsuit.

“The lower courts are badly in need of a reminder of what this Court clearly held in Valley Forge,” the ACLJ petition states. “The present case perfectly exemplifies this need. The
theory of standing here is, in essence, ‘I came, I saw, I was offended.'”

“We believe it’s critical for the Supreme Court to take this case and overturn a flawed decision that conflicts with Supreme Court precedent and other appeals courts,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of ACLJ, in a statement. “This display is not only appropriate, but constitutional as well. It merely reflects a legal philosophy embraced by our Founders: a society’s legal system must rest on moral absolutes as opposed to moral relativism, and that abandonment of moral absolutes leads to societal breakdown and chaos. We’re hopeful that the high court will take this case and overturn this flawed decision.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with a lower court that Davis had grounds to sue and that DeWeese’s poster constituted a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment Establishment Clause.

DeWeese, however, has declared his purpose in creating and displaying the poster “was to express my views about two warring legal philosophies that motivate behavior and the consequences that I have personally witnessed in my 18 years as a trial judge of
moving to a moral relativist philosophy and abandoning a moral absolutist legal philosophy.”

Poster created by Judge James DeWeese and hung in his courtroom

The ACLJ, furthermore, insists the Sixth Court decision conflicts with Supreme Court rulings affirming that governmental acknowledgement of religion is consistent with America’s heritage and Constitution.

The ACLJ petition claims the whole case boils down to a few, key questions:

  • “Does respondent ACLU, whose ‘injury’ consists of no more than the fact that one of its members on occasion views and takes offense at conduct with which he disagrees, have standing … to bring an Establishment Clause challenge?”
  • “Did the Sixth Circuit err in holding, in conflict with this Court’s decisions recognizing with approval the role of religion in the country’s history and heritage, that DeWeese’s jurisprudential commentary was an impermissible endorsement of religion?”

The ACLJ contends that the appeals court got it wrong – arguing that simply being offended does not give a plaintiff legal standing to file suit and that the Supreme Court has recognized with approval the role of religion in the country’s history and heritage.

The ACLJ notes that Judge DeWeese’s thoughts on law and morality can best be summed up by Justice William O. Douglas’ dissenting opinion in 1961’s Supreme Court case McGowan v. Maryland: “The institutions of our society are founded on the belief that there is an authority higher than the authority of the State; that there is a moral law which the State is powerless to alter; that the individual possesses rights, conferred by the Creator, which government must respect.”

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