Federal judge rules Florida courthouse must remove Ten Commandments monument

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[JURIST] A federal judge on Friday ordered [text, PDF] Florida’s Dixie County Courthouse to remove the Ten Commandments monument [JPG] displayed on the front steps of the courthouse. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLUFL) [advocacy website] filed the lawsuit in early 2007, arguing that the monument violated the Establishment Clause [Cornell LII backgrounder] of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Dixie County maintained that the display was protected as private speech under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment [text] because the monument, which cost over USD $20,000 to construct, weighs six tons and includes a banner proclaiming “Love God and Keep His Commandments,” was purchased and installed by a private community member. The court, however, ruled that because of the location, “permanent” nature and religious message of the structure, it must be removed. Judge Maurice Paul agreed with the ACLUFL, concluding that the monument’s religious message would be interpreted to be espoused by the government:

As noted previously, permanent displays carry the indicia of government speech. This strongly implies endorsement of the message being conveyed. However, beyond the mere permanence of the monument, the context of the display establishes Dixie County’s endorsement of its religious message. The monument is five-feet tall, made of six tons of granite, and sits alone at the center of the top of the steps in front of the county courthouse that houses every significant local government office. “No viewer could reasonably think that it occupies this location without the support and approval of the government.”

Furthermore, the court held that the monument violates the Lemon test, which states that, “a governmental practice violates the Establishment Clause if it does not have a secular purpose, if its primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion, or if it fosters excessive government entanglement with religion.” The monument must be removed from the courthouse steps within 30 days.

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit [official website] in February upheld [opinion, PDF] a lower court ruling barring the Ten Commandments [JURIST report] from being displayed in an Ohio courthouse. The Sixth Circuit in June 2010 upheld an injunction against similar displays [JURIST report] in two Kentucky courthouses, finding that the displays represented simply another strategy “in a long line of attempts” to comply with the Constitution for litigation purposes and did not “minimize the residue of religious purpose.” A month earlier, the same court denied an en banc rehearing in another case [opinion, PDF] involving the display of the Ten Commandments in a Grayson County, Kentucky, courthouse. The court found the display to be constitutional because it presented a valid secular purpose from the outset. In a 2005 decision, the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of a Ten Commandments display [JURIST report] in a Mercer County, Kentucky, courthouse. A 2005 Supreme Court decision [JURIST report] prohibiting an earlier attempt at a similar display in Kentucky prompted lawmakers to propose a constitutional amendment [JURIST report] to overturn it. On the same day, the Supreme Court ruled that a six-foot-tall display of the Ten Commandments [JURIST report] on the grounds of the Texas state capitol was constitutionally acceptable because it had a secular purpose.

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