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Reform Jewish Movement Commends the Supreme Court's Preservation of the Separation of Church and State in Ten Commandments Cases
In two decisions regarding the constitutionality of displays of the Ten Commandments on government property, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in support of maintaining a longstanding protection against government endorsement of religion. In McCreary County v. ACLU of KY, the Court rejected the so-called historically contextualized Ten Commandments displays in two county courthouses and a school district as motivated by a primarily religious purpose, concluding that they were a subterfuge for government endorsement of religion. In Van Orden v. Perry, although upholding a large monument of the Ten Commandments on the Texas Statehouse grounds, the majority of the Justices remained steadfastly committed to the notion that government cannot endorse a display found to convey a religious message.

Saperstein: The Supreme Court’s decision today provides an essential affirmation of government neutrality toward religion at a time when, as Justice Souter acknowledged, the religious community appears to be increasingly divided in American public life.

Contact: Alexis Rice or Eric Gold
202.387.2800 

WASHINGTON, June 27, 2005 - In two decisions regarding the constitutionality of displays of the Ten Commandments on government property, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in support of maintaining a longstanding protection against government endorsement of religion. In McCreary County v. ACLU of KY, the Court rejected the so-called historically contextualized Ten Commandments displays in two county courthouses and a school district as motivated by a primarily religious purpose, concluding that they were a subterfuge for government endorsement of religion. In Van Orden v. Perry, although upholding a large monument of the Ten Commandments on the Texas Statehouse grounds, the majority of the Justices remained steadfastly committed to the notion that government cannot endorse a display found to convey a religious message. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement responding to the decisions:

    We applaud the Court’s rejection of the Ten Commandments displays in McCreary County v. ACLU of KY. As Justice Souter argued for the 5-4 Court majority today, “When the government acts with the ostensible and predominant purpose of advancing religion, it violates that central Establishment clause value of official religious neutrality…”

    We agree.

    The Supreme Court’s decision today provides an essential affirmation of government neutrality toward religion at a time when, as Justice Souter acknowledged, the religious community appears to be increasingly divided in American public life. In McCreary, Justice Souter articulated an eloquent and powerfully reasoned defense of the separation of church and state in America.  Tellingly, he observed “The Framers and the citizens of their time intended not only to protect the integrity of individual conscience in religious matters but to guard against the civic divisiveness that follows when the Government weighs in on one side of religious debate.”

    The McCreary opinion, however, remains very narrowly crafted and failed to draw a bright line test for displays of religious symbols on government property. We look forward, with some trepidation, to continuing litigation in the realm of public displays of religion. Now more than ever, the closely divided Court in this case underscores the paramount importance of any vacancies arising at the completion of this Court’s term today.

    While we certainly disagree with the Court’s rationale upholding the Ten Commandments display in Van Orden as merely “secular,” the Court’s adherence to the notion that government should not endorse or oppose religion is an important reaffirmation of government neutrality towards religion as the touchstone of Supreme Court jurisprudence regarding the separation of church and state.

    As Jews, the Ten Commandments are the fundamental ethical code on which we base our religious and moral beliefs. We believe that it is precisely because of the Commandments’ signal religious value that they belong in our synagogues, religious schools, in our homes and in our hearts, rather than in courts, public schools, or other government institutions. Displaying an inherently religious symbol, such as the Ten Commandments, on public property is not only a clear and direct violation of the Establishment Clause, but also risks detracting from its powerful religious message.

    As Justice O’Connor noted in her concurring opinion, the significance of the Ten Commandments may be profoundly religious for Jews and for millions of other Americans, but “We do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.” We commend the Court’s recognition of this important constitutional protection.

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      The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis.


       



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