McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky.

PETITIONER: McCreary County, Kentucky, et al.
RESPONDENT: American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, et al.
LOCATION: Meramec River

DOCKET NO.: 03-1693
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 545 US (2005)
GRANTED: Oct 12, 2004
ARGUED: Mar 02, 2005
DECIDED: Jun 27, 2005

David A. Friedman - argued the cause for Respondents
Mathew D. Staver - argued the cause for Petitioners
Paul D. Clement - argued the cause for Petitioners

Facts of the case

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued three Kentucky counties in federal district court for displaying framed copies of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and public schools. The ACLU argued the displays violated the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits the government from passing laws "respecting an establishment of religion." The district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the displays violated the establishment clause.


  1. Do Ten Commandments displays in public schools and in courthouses violate the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits government from passing laws "respecting an establishment of religion?" 2. Was a determination that the displays' purpose had been to advance religion sufficient for the displays' invalidation?

Media for McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 02, 2005 in McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 27, 2005 in McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky.

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in two cases will be announced by Justice Souter.

David H. Souter:

The first case in which I have the announcement this morning is McCreary County v. ACLU, No. 03-1693.

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

It issue two identical series of Ten Commandments displays erected by county officials in two Kentucky Courthouses.

The first display in each county consisted of a large gold frame copy of the Ten Commandments that was hung in 1999 in a busy hallway of each courthouse.

The respondents, the American Civil Liberties Union brought a lawsuit against the county petitioners alleging the displays violated the clause of the Constitution prohibiting the establishment of religion.

The county is responded by passing identical resolutions stating that the commandments were the precedent legal code for Kentucky Law, and approvingly citing various sectarian references including the Kentucky legislature’s description of Jesus Christ as the Prince of Ethics.

As called for by the resolutions, the county’s extended the displays to surround the Ten Commandments with smaller size patriotic and legal documents that highlighted religious references.

The District Court issued a preliminary injunction requiring the displaced to be taken down.

It found that poses risks and the second displays lack any secular purpose and that the county’s object was instead to advance religion in violation of the Constitution.

At this point, the county has got a new lawyer and installed another display, the third within a year.

This one was entitled “The Foundations of American Law and Government” and it comprise an extended text of the commandments surrounded by equal size copies of such documents as the Bill of Rights, a picture of Lady Justice and the lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner.

The Commandments now had an explanatory note next to them stating that they profoundly influence the formation of our county and thus us seen in the decoration of independence.

The District Court found that this display also violated the Establishment Clause concluding that the county has claimed broader educational goals crumbled upon examination of the litigations history.

It divided Sixth Circuit panel affirmed the preliminary injunction on much the same ground.

We granted certiorari and in an opinion of the Court filed with the Clerk today, we now affirm.

The primary questions this case presents are first the extent to which governmental purpose is relevant in enforcing the Establishment Clause, and secondly where they past official action can be relevant in evaluating current actions.

As the opinion explains, an evaluation of purpose has been a long standing all be it rarely just positive feature of our Establishment Clause cases.

Purpose is critical because it directly relates to a central Establishment Clause principle neutrality.

The idea that the government may not discriminate among religions who are between religion and your religion.

Well, no one principle can be this positive in many situations in which religion and government intersect.

Neutrality has long been attached down of our cases and when the government is understood to take sides purposely in religious matters, there can be no neutrality but only the social attention that the framer sought to avoid in drafting the Establishment Clause.

We thus, reaffirm today that government action predominantly intended to advance religion is not permitted under the Establishment Clause.

Applying this principle to the case at hand we reached the following conclusions: Twenty-five years ago in the case of Stone v. Graham, we recognized and held something pretty obvious that the Ten Commandments are inherently religious statements, that does not to be sure mean that every governmental display of the commandments is unconstitutional, context matters and where the display serves on educational or other predominantly secular goal, the display can be constitutional.

In fact, Moses and the Commandments are displayed in this very Courtroom up on the south and east but Moses stands there in the company of other lawgivers both great and secular demonstrating that the display is about lawgivers’ not about religion and was not the product of some religious objective.

In the Kentucky Courthouses however, the first commandment’s display consisted of the text of the commandments in isolation showing that any integration into a secular project the commandment’s text including such provision as “Thou shall have no other gods before Me” leads to the inescapable conclusion that the county has intended to put out a religious message.

The second display only amplified this religious message and indeed the county has make not attempt to defend it describing the second display as dead and buried.

That display with its explicitly cite herein resolution and surrounding religious references could leave no doubt that the county is intended to make a religious statement.

In evaluating the third display, we have to consider the two displays that immediately preceded it.

We think that the District Court was justified in concluding that the county has had not shown any secular educational purpose.