Religious Symbols in the American Public Square (2004)

Judge Roy Moore and the Ten Commandments

The role of religion in the public square made national headlines in 2003-2004 as Judge Roy Moore, soon known as the “Ten Commandments Judge,” refused to obey official court orders to remove a 2.6 ton monument of the Ten Commandments from the front of the Alabama courthouse. Moore was sued on October 30, 2001 by the ACLU of Alabama and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who argued that the statue amounted to an official state endorsement of religion. Moore countered that the monument honored the Ten Commandments as the moral foundation of Western law.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson’s order in August of 2003 for Judge Moore to remove the monument set off a firestorm of protest across the country, with a Gallup Poll finding that 77 percent of Americans disagreed with the decision. That same month, Moore announced his intentions to defy the court order. On November 4, 2003 the Supreme Court denied Moore’s appeal, and ten days later he was removed from office for refusing to obey court orders.

Across the US, Disputes Over Religious Symbols

The Ten Commandments controversy set off a wave of similar disputes across America as the tension between religious freedom and the separation of church and state continued to make headlines. In February of 2004, the City Council voted that the Ten Commandments monument in Plattsmouth, Nebraska must be torn down. The following month, a City Council in Minnesota arrived at the same verdict. In April of 2004 the city of Redlands, California agreed to remove a cross from its official seal due to pressure from the ACLU. Protestors gathered to wave crucifixes at passing cars and carry signs saying, “Don’t toss the cross.”

Not all cases ruled in favor of banning religious symbols in the public square, however. In June of 2003, a court ruled that a Ten Commandments plaque that has hung for 83 years on the facade of the Chester County, PA courthouse does not constitute an official endorsement of religion, and may remain there for the sake of historical preservation. On April 6, 2004, a court ruled that city officials in Cincinnati could not bar religious displays on a downtown plaza during the Christmas and Hanukkah seasons.

The Pledge of Allegiance: 'Under God'?

The debate over whether the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional also made headlines in 2004, as Michael Newdow, an atheist, sued the Elk Grove Unified School District in Sacramento County, California, in which his daughter was enrolled. Arguing his own case, Newdow claimed that even though reciting the pledge was voluntary, the rights of the individual students are violated because they are forced to listen to it. Newdow's argument against the phrase "Under God" is the most recent in a long history of protestations against the clause, from the ACLU, who argue that it violates the separation of church and state, and also from some Buddhists, who argue that it privileges monotheistic beliefs. The pledge was written in the late nineteenth century, but it wasn't until 1954, during the Cold War against communism, that Congress inserted the words "under God."

On June 14, 2004, the Supreme Court, in an 8-0 ruling, reversed an earlier ruling by the U.S. 9th District circuit of appeals which stated that the phrase "Under God" was unconstitutional. The court avoided deciding on the constitutionality of the phrase; instead, they stated simply that Newdow lacked the parental rights to argue on behalf his child as Newdow does not have custody of his daughter.

Recent Developments: Van Orden v. Perry

In late 2004, the debate over religion in the public square continued to expand as new voices entered the public conversation. On December 13, 2004, the Hindu American Foundation filed a brief of Amicus Curiae (Friend of the Court) “representing the interests of Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains" regarding the display of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol (Van Orden v. Perry). The brief states that “The Ten Commandments Monument is a large granite monument in the traditional shape of the Biblical Stones engraved with a message from the Judeo-Christian God and sitting on the path to the seat of political power in a predominantly Christian state. The lower courts erred by failing to consider the effect of this Monument on non-Judeo-Christians, such as the followers of the religions represented by Amici. As set forth above, the Ten Commandments Monument sends the message to such non-Judeo-Christians that the State of on display in Texas endorses Judeo-Christian religions and that Judeo-Christians are insiders while all others are outsiders. Amici urge this Court to consider such effects and conclude that the Ten Commandments Monument violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."

—Stephanie Saldaña, Pluralism Project Student Affiliate; Updated by Pluralism Project Staff

Selected Links

"Special Alabama Court Refuses to Reinstate 'Commandments Judge'," Americans United.

"ACLU Wants Cross Rubbed Out of L.A. County Seal," Newseum Institute.

"'One Nation' - But Under What?," The Christian Science Monitor.

"Court Dismisses Pledge Case on Technicality," CNN.

"ACLU Urges Supreme Court to Uphold Pledge Ruling," American Civil Liberties Union.