WASHINGTON, May 30 (JTA) The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a case testing whether a public display of the Ten Commandments violates the separation of church and state.
The high court this week could not get the four votes necessary to agree to hear the case, and as a result it let stand a federal appeals court’s ruling against the display.
By refusing to hear the case Tuesday, the high court turned aside an appeal filed by officials from Elkhart, Ind., who claimed a six-foot monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments that stands outside the city municipal building does not violate the Constitution’s principle of church-state separation.
The high court is now letting a U.S. court in Indiana decide what the city must do with the monument.
A panel of judges from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had previously ruled against the Indiana officials, saying the purpose behind the 40-year-old display “was to promote religious ideals.”
Judges in lower courts “will get the message that this is not an issue the Supreme Court is re-examining,” said Marc Stern, the co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department.
Jeffrey Sinensky, legal counsel and director of domestic policy for the American Jewish Committee, said he would be surprised if the court would decide at a later date to take up a Ten Commandments case.
By coincidence, the court’s announcement came on the second day of the holiday of Shavuot, when Jews commemorate the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
Another bit of irony: Above the Supreme Court bench is a marble frieze depicting Moses carrying the Ten Commandments.
The display does not break any church-state rules, Justice John Paul Stevens has written, because Moses appears along with other historical lawgivers, including Mohammed and Confucius.
In a dissent from the court’s refusal to take the Indiana case, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said, “The monument does not express the city’s preference for a particular religion or for religious belief in general,” but rather reflects the role of the Ten Commandments in the development of the Western legal system.
In response, Stevens noted that the First Commandment reads “I Am The Lord Thy God,” adding that this is “rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference.”
There could be more challenges to the constitutionality of other similar monuments around the country as a result of the court’s stance.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the court’s announcement “should help bring the Religious Right’s Ten Commandments crusade” to display the Commandments in public places “to a screeching halt.”
In 1980, the high court ruled 5-to-4 that a Kentucky state law requiring the posting of a copy of the Ten Commandments in each public school classroom violated the separation of church and state.
The justices ruled at the time that the posting “had no secular legislative purpose” and was “plainly religious in nature.”
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure in 1999 that would have permitted states to allow the display of the Ten Commandments in schools and other public places, but the measure never became law.