The US Supreme Court declined Monday to take up a case examining whether an Ohio judge violated the separation of church and state when he displayed a poster in his courtroom that contrasted the Ten Commandments with humanist precepts.
By declining the case, the court let stand rulings that found that the judge had indeed violated the church-state principle.
Ohio Common Pleas Court Judge James DeWeese had labeled the poster “Philosophies of Law in Conflict” and included personal commentary.
He declared his preference for the moral absolutism of the Ten Commandments [forbidding murder, theft, adultery, etc.] rather than what he called the moral relativism of humanists.
“The cases passing through this courtroom demonstrate we are paying a high cost in increased crime and other social ills for moving from moral absolutism [like the Ten Commandments] to moral relativism [favored by humanists]…. Our Founders saw the necessity of moral absolutes,” Judge DeWeese is quoted on the poster.
He added: “I join the Founders in personally acknowledging the importance of Almighty God’s fixed moral standards for restoring the moral fabric of this nation.”
Concerned that the judge was attempting to use his public courtroom as a pulpit, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed suit asking a federal judge to declare the display a violation of the First Amendment’s bar on government establishment and endorsement of religion.
Judge DeWeese defended the display as an attempt to express his views about the consequences of the country abandoning its religious heritage and moving toward a moral relativist philosophy and away from a moral absolutist legal philosophy.
Both a federal judge and a panel of the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that DeWeese’s poster crossed the line drawn by the Supreme Court separating church and state.
In a decision handed down in February, the Sixth Circuit noted that that Judge DeWeese had been ordered in 2000 to remove a poster of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom wall. That display was also ruled a violation of the separation of church and state.
To survive this second challenge, the judge would have to have demonstrated that the new poster had a secular purpose – that it wasn’t intended to teach or promote a religious message.
The appeals court said in light of DeWeese’s earlier poster “the history of [the judge’s] actions demonstrates that any purported secular purpose is a sham.”
In his brief on behalf of DeWeese urging the high court to take up the case, Jay Sekulow said the appeals court had impermissibly used the prior Ten Commandments case as the determinative factor in deciding the constitutionality of the second poster five years later.
“The court below held that DeWeese’s past actions were enough to demonstrate that any secular purpose behind his philosophy poster was a ‘sham,’ ” Mr. Sekulow wrote. “The Sixth Circuit’s position is crystal clear: once tainted, always tainted.”
Sekulow said a government official’s affirmation of moral absolutes – like the Ten Commandments – does not constitute an impermissible endorsement of religion.
“DeWeese’s statement that he agrees with the Founders in grounding morality in a divine source is no more an establishment of religion than what this Court itself has recognized regarding the historical and symbiotic role between religion and government,” Sekulow said.
Michael Honohan of the ACLU disagreed. “The poster in this case is so clearly religious on its face that a reading of the poster alone would justify a finding of a violation of the Establishment Clause,” he said in his brief.
Honohan said the judge’s poster forces members of the public who may be required to be present in his courtroom to confront a religious message with which they may disagree.
The case was similar to the court’s decision to bar the offering of a prayer at a public high school graduation, the lawyer said.
“The distinction between merely presenting examples of historical views on the source of law, and advocating a position that all law comes from God and that society suffers when people abandon what DeWeese terms ‘moral absolutism,’ is of course a crucial distinction in determining whether the poster in question is a religious one. But it is a distinction which seems to escape Judge DeWeese,” Honohan wrote.
He said the judge’s attempt to explain the meaning and purpose of the poster only exacerbated the problem by adding a clear religious viewpoint to the display.
The case was Hon. James DeWeese v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation (10-1512).