Court Upholds Constitutionality of Ten Commandments Display

A federal appeals court upheld the public display of a Ten Commandments monument in a Nebraskan city park on Friday, in the first Ten Commandments case following recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 10-2 decision of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling last year from one of the court’s three-judge panels that said the Ten Commandments monument in the City of Plattsmouth, Neb., must be removed.

“The decision of the Court of Appeals is a perfect and sound application of the law set by the nation’s highest court earlier this year in Van Orden v. Perry,” said Francis Manion of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which argued the case on behalf of the City of Plattsmouth. “Like the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals recognizes that a public display of the Ten Commandments can have historical and legal significance and does not violate the Constitution in any way.”

According to the ACLJ, the court’s decision relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s Van Orden decision, which held that the display of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas state capitol was constitutional.

Writing for the majority in the Plattsmouth, Judge Pasco Bowman noted, “Given [the] rich American tradition of religious acknowledgements, we cannot conclude that the City’s display of a Ten Commandments monument violates the Establishment Clause—particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Van Orden.”

Bowman recognized that the Plattsmouth monument “makes passive—and permissible—use of the text of the Ten Commandments to acknowledge the role of religion in our Nation’s heritage.”

“This case proves once again that the Ten Commandments can be publicly displayed in a manner consistent with the Constitution,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ, in a statement on Friday. “The Court of Appeals reasserts today what the Supreme Court has consistently held: that religion is closely tied to our history and government.”

Plattsmouth’s Ten Commandments monument is one of hundreds donated to cities and counties around the nation in the 1950s and 1960s by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a national social, civic, and patriotic organization.

Plattsmouth, a town of 7,000 some 20 miles south of Omaha, received its five-foot-tall, three-foot wide granite monument in 1965.

In addition to the text, the monument is marked with two Stars of David, which are symbols of the Jewish faith. It sits in Memorial Park.

The initial lawsuit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of an atheist resident of Plattsmouth, alleged that the monument failed to maintain a proper separation between church and state.

Lawyers for Plattsmouth, however, argued that the monument was simply a gift, not an endorsement of religion. They also argued that the monument was protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.

On Feb. 19, 2002, U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf of Lincoln rejected the city’s arguments and said the monument “conveys a message that Christianity and Judaism are favored religions.”

Two years later, on Feb. 18, a three-judge panel of the appeals court reviewing Kopf's earlier ruling upheld the decision, stating that the monument’s “message is undeniably religious."

The ACLJ, which focuses on family and religious issues, had asked the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review the earlier ruling.