In a narrowly drawn ruling, the Supreme Court struck down Ten Commandments displays in courthouses Monday, holding that two exhibits in Kentucky crossed the line between separation of church and state because they promoted a religious message.
The 5-4 decision, first of two seeking to mediate the bitter culture war over religion’s place in public life, took a case-by-case approach to this vexing issue. In the decision, the court declined to prohibit all displays in court buildings or on government property.
The justices left themselves legal wiggle room on this issue, however, saying that some displays — like their own courtroom frieze — would be permissible if they’re portrayed neutrally in order to honor the nation’s legal history.
But framed copies in two Kentucky courthouses went too far in endorsing religion, the court held.
“The touchstone for our analysis is the principle that the First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,” Justice David H. Souter wrote for the majority.
“When the government acts with the ostensible and predominant purpose of advancing religion, it violates that central Establishment clause value of official religious neutrality,” he said.
Souter was joined in his opinion by other members of the liberal bloc — Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, as well as Reagan appointee Sandra Day O’Connor, who provided the swing vote.