Texas placed a monument of the
Ten Commandments on the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin.
The monument had been
donated by a civic group.
40 years later, Van Orden sued
for an injunction, claiming that the displays violated the Establishment
Clause of the 1st
The Trial Court found Texas.
Van Orden appealed.
The Trial Court found that
the monument served a valid secular purpose.
The Trial Court found that a
reasonable observer would not interpret the monument as a government
endorsement of religion.
The Appellate Court affirmed.
Van Orden appealed.
The US Supreme Court affirmed.
The US Supreme Court found
that "simply having religious content or promoting a message
consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the
The Court found that the
monument, when considered in context, conveyed a historic and social
meaning rather than an intrusive religious endorsement.
The Court found that since
the monument had been around for 40 years without anyone having a problem
with it, if the Court were to suddenly demand its removal, that wouldn't
seem neutral towards religion, it
would seem more like a strike against religion.
Compare this case to McCreary
County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (545 U.S. 844 (2005)), which had very similar
facts, but found that the display of the Ten Commandments was an
unconstitutional infringement of the Establishment Clause.
Strangely, both cases were
decided the same day.
Justice Breyer was the swing
vote, and indicated that while he agreed with the logic of the majority
in McCreary, slight differences
in the facts made him decide that the display in Van Orden had primarily a secular message, not a
religious one. In addition, the display in Van Orden had been there for 40 years with no problem
before someone sued to get it removed, implying that people didn't really
have a problem with it.
You could argue that the
purpose of the Establishment Clause
is to prevent divisiveness due to religious differences. In this case,
it was arguable that the consequences of removing the monument would be
greater than the consequences of just leaving it there.