(CN) – The 10th Circuit on Monday rejected a county’s placement of a Ten Commandments monument outside a county courthouse in Oklahoma, saying the monument’s location could be viewed as a governmental endorsement of religion.
In a move that attracted signifant media attention, the Haskell County Board of Commissioners approved a citizen’s request to erect the monument on the lawn outside the county courthouse in Sigler, Okla.
County resident James Green and the ACLU of Oklahoma filed suit against the board and various county officials, claiming the monument violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
After a two-day bench trial, a federal judge dismissed the case after determining that the board’s placement of the Christian tenets did not violate the Constitution.
The Denver-based federal appeals court reversed, holding that a “reasonable observer” could view the monument as a county endorsement of religion.
Judge Holmes said the board’s approval of the monument failed to pass the three-prong test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman. To pass constitutional muster, a challenged government action must: 1) have a secular legislative purpose, 2) have a principal or primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and 3) not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.
The county board failed the second prong of this test by approving a monument that appeared to endorse Christianity, the three-judge panel ruled.
Holmes acknowledged that the monument stood beside other displays that the district court described as a “mélange” of “what Haskell County citizens consider the noteworthy events and sentiments of their county, their state and their nation.”
But the Oklahoma case differed from other legal challenges to Ten Commandments displays, the court ruled, because the Haskell County monument was relatively isolated on the courthouse lawn, and the plaintiffs filed suit less than a year after the display was unveiled.
“Accordingly, viewing the record as a whole, we do not believe that the monument’s setting here should lead us to a different conclusion on the endorsement question,” Holmes wrote.
The judges also rejected the claim that the inclusion of the Mayflower Compact made the monument more secular.
“[W]e cannot construe a display of the Ten Commandments not to be an endorsement of religion merely because it is accompanied by the Mayflower Compact or other secular documents.”
The panel reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
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