• Key point: A display of the Ten Commandments on a courthouse wall may violate the first amendment’s prohibition of the establishment of religion. But, such a display would be permissible if part of a larger display of other important documents in the evolution of American law.
• A federal district court in Georgia ruled that the display of the Ten Commandments on a courthouse wall violated the first amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion. The court emphasized that no other source of American law was displayed, and accordingly the display represented an impermissible promotion of Judaism and Christianity. However, the court quoted with approval from the following statement of United States Supreme Court Justice Stevens in a recent case:
A carving of Moses holding the Ten Commandments, if that is the only adornment on a courtroom wall, conveys an equivocal message, perhaps of respect for Judaism, for religion in general, or for law. The addition of carvings depicting Confucius and Mohammed may honor religion, to an extent that the first amendment does not tolerate any more than it does the permanent erection of a large Latin cross on the roof of city hall. Placement of secular figures such as Caesar Augustus, William Blackstone, Napoleon Bonaparte, and John Marshall alongside these three religious figures, however, signals respect not for great proselytizers but for great lawgivers. It would be absurd to exclude such a fitting message from a courtroom, as it would to exclude religious paintings by Italian Renaissance masters from a public museum.
The court asked the county to come up with a display, including the Ten Commandments, that met this test. Harvey v. Cobb County, 811 F. Supp. 669 (N.D. Ga. 1993).
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