The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to take up the case of a privately-funded Ten Commandments display that sits on the lawn of a county courthouse in Oklahoma.
With the high court having denied the petition to review the decision of a federal appeals court, Haskell County is now legally obligated to remove the eight-foot tall and three-foot wide monument, which lists the Ten Commandments on front and the Mayflower Compact on the back.
Though Haskell County officials have for many years allowed citizens to erect monuments in the courthouse lawn area, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled last year that a “reasonable observer” would be aware of the religious motivations behind the Ten Commandments display – especially in a small community like Haskell County, “where everyone knows everyone.”
The judges highlighted the widely known religious motivations of local lay pastor Mike Bush, who had won permission from county commissioners to erect the monument and raised funds with the help of Haskell County churches and youth groups.
They also referred to statements of religious beliefs made by at least two of the three commissioners to the local media.
“By not distinguishing their personal opinions from their official views, the commissioners left the impression that a principal or primary reason for the erection and maintenance of the display was religious,” the judges explained after voting 3-0 against the display.
“[W]e hold that, under the unique circumstances presented here, the Establishment Clause was violated because the reasonable observer would view the Monument as having the impermissible principal or primary effect of endorsing religion,” they concluded.
That said, the appeals court remanded the district court to enter judgment consistent with their opinion.
The district court had originally sided with the monument, stating that a “reasonable observer” would see that the monument is not the focus of the courthouse lawn, as there are a number of other displays, including three memorials to veterans of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War; an Unmarked Graves monument; a Choctaw Indian Tribe Monument; two benches commemorating the high school graduating classes of 1954 and 1955; and 150 personalized message bricks on the sidewalk leading to the courthouse’s front steps.
“A reasonable observer would be aware that the Commandments and the Compact are primarily and historically legal dictates, and would know that the lawn of a courthouse is particularly appropriate for historical codes to be displayed,” wrote Judge Ronald White of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma.
Also siding with the monument was the state legislature and governor, which – respectively – passed and signed a bill authorizing its placement.