WASHINGTON - August 16 - A federal appeals court has held that a Bible display outside a Texas county courthouse violates the separation of church and state.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that a religious memorial outside the Harris County Civil Courthouse violates the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.
The ruling in Staley v. Harris County upholds a 2004 district court decision that the display, which prominently features an open Bible illuminated by neon lighting, runs afoul of the Constitution.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State argued before the 5th Circuit that the district judge’s ruling should be upheld against an appeal by Harris County officials.
“A courthouse should welcome citizens of all religious perspectives and none,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “This display sent the clear message that Christianity was the government-preferred faith and other Americans are second-class citizens. In a diverse country, that’s unacceptable.”
The display was erected in 1956 by a Christian charity to honor William S. Mosher, a Houston businessman and philanthropist. The memorial includes a glass-topped case housing an open Bible. The monument, as the 5th Circuit noted, faces the main entrance to the Harris County courthouse and is therefore visible to “attorneys, litigants, jurors, witnesses and other visitors to the Courthouse.”
In the late 1980s, the memorial was vandalized and the Bible removed. The Bible was later restored to the display by a local official who was elected to office on a platform of melding religion and government. In 1995, Judge John Devine and his court reporter, Karen Friend, solicited private donations to refurbish the memorial and return a Bible to the display. A ceremony commemorating the revived display included Christian ministers offering prayer.
Kay Staley, a citizen of Harris County and an attorney who did business in the courthouse, challenged the display in federal court as blatant constitutional violation. Americans United represented her in the litigation before the appeals court.
In its 2-1 ruling, the 5th Circuit concluded that the memorial, because of the actions of Harris County officials, such as Judge Devine, is a government endorsement of Christianity instead of a memorial.
The “reasonable observer would conclude,” the Circuit majority wrote, “that the monument, with the Bible outlined in red neon lighting, had evolved into a predominantly religious symbol.”
Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan argued before the 5th Circuit panel last year to uphold the district court’s finding that the display violated the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.
“This decision faithfully applies precedent on government-sponsored religious displays,” Khan said. “Harris County officials have unwisely supported a display that long ago turned into a vehicle to promote Christianity.”
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.