Sunday, April 8, 2012

Dispute over Ten Commandments Bill in Tennessee

In Tennessee, there has been a dispute regarding a new piece of legislation headed by Representative Matthew Hill. The bill authorized local governments to display the Ten Commandments with other historical documents within the local courthouses. The bill is not supported by everyone. Some believe that it is unconstitutional to display the Ten Commandments on public property. It is feared that this bill would violate the Establishment Clause.
    In Rutherford County, Tennessee some officials put the Ten Commandments on display and were instructed to take it down after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the county. Hill’s new bill would allow courthouses to display the Ten Commandments, the Mayflower Compact, the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the United States and state constitutions, which are integral to the development of American law and symbolize American freedom and the nation’s history.
    The likelihood of the bill being signed is overwhelming. The Tennessee House approved the bill 93-0 and the Senate voted 30-0. Matthew Hill brought the bill forward after reading about groups like the American Civil Liberties Union suing governments over the issue of displaying the Ten Commandments on public property.
    The context in which these items are on display is extremely important. If the Ten Commandments were the only thing on display, there might be a constitutionality problem according to the Supreme Court’s historical jurisprudence. If the Ten Commandments are displayed equally with other historical documents, then the display may pass constitutional muster. Tennessee is not the only state that is trying to get this type of legislation passed. Kentucky, Alabama, and Georgia have tried to pass similar legislation. This year in Georgia, the House approved a similar bill 161-0, the state Senate approved the legislation 41-9 on March 30th, 2012.
    I think that this bill will have no problem with being signed and I think it is completely constitutional. This situation reminds me of the Supreme Court case of Van Orden v Perry. Van Orden challenged the display of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state Capitol building because he believed that the display violated the Establishment Clause. In a plurality opinion, the Supreme Court held that the monument did not violate the Establishment Clause because the monument was in a park surrounded by other historic monuments. The decided that the display was a part of national tradition and it was commemorating historical documents that celebrate the United States. The Supreme Court stated, “simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the establishment clause”.
    I agree with the Supreme Court, I see nothing wrong with putting the Ten Commandments up in courthouses, if it’s primary purpose is to commemorate the history of the United States. If it was standing by itself, or if it had an overbearing religious tone then I believe  it is unconstitutional. This is very similar to the Lynch v Donnelly case. In Lynch, the Supreme Court held that a nativity scene placed on public property did not violate the Establishment Clause because it was surrounded by other non-religious symbols of the holiday season.  The Supreme Court has consistently held the displays that include religious material are not automatically unconstitutional.  As long as the intent of the display is not meant to promote religion, but for some other legitimate purpose, it may be constitutional.


Catherine S said...

I agree with you Olivia. Even before I got to your conclusion I was thinking this was very similar to the Lynch case. The Ten Commandments were not put there for religious reasons, but secular. They are displayed with other historical documents that were very much part of how American law came to be. They, along with many of the other displays, still influence American law. I see no problem with the display.

Alicia said...

Yes, this is reminiscent of the Lynch v. Donnelly case; however, for some reason this case seems a little less threatening to the establishment clause since the context of the display is historical rather than celebratory of a season grounded in religion.

kathryn y. said...

I hate to be that person, but I am not sure that I am comfortable with the Court placing the Ten Commandments up. While I understand the reasoning, that is, that there are other "historical documents" placed upon the walls, I find that because the ten commandments are religiously charged, it is a sticky situation. I find that because the ten commandments are connected to the Abrahamic traditions, it is hard to know where to draw the line. I find that this is an excellent situation for our class to discuss!

Gabe AB said...

How are the Ten Commandmants in any way "Historical American Documents?" Attempting to place them in a context by placing them alongside other documents that actually have a history here does those documents no service. Having the Constitution and Bill of Rights there makes sense, they are the foundation of our legal tradition. However, the Ten Commandments, and to a lesser extent, the Magna Carta, are not American Historical Documents. They are important to America's history, but placing them alongside the Constitution and Bill of Rights is silly. Additionally, the Ten Commandments are not secular, clearly this should violate the establishment clause.

Amisha P said...

While I see the connection in this case and Lynch v Donnelly case I still do not think it is the same. In the Lynch case the nativity scene was much more secular. If this case were to go to the Supreme Court the outcome would be different. I do not see the Ten Commandments as a Historical American Document. I can see why the Mayflower Compact, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the national and state constitutions are historical documents. This seems like Tennessee is trying to sneak religion into the courts.

Christiana Torere said...

I call issues like these "common sense issues" there no way the 10 commandments does not serve for religious purposes, they come straight out the Bible. Now as Catherine has stated the 10 commandments could be used as a secular purpose because they do tend to read things that is against the law to do; but they could just make a rule book instead of posting the 10 commandments. I honestly think that this Bill will be signed because its too risky simply because its coming straight out the Holy Bible.