Posting a copy of the Ten Commandments in the Grayson County Courthouse did not violate the U.S. Constitution, federal appeals judges ruled Thursday.
The decision clears the way for the county to return a copy of the commandments to the courthouse wall, where it once hung in a display with other documents such as the Declaration of Independence and a picture of Lady Justice.
A federal judge in Louisville had previously ordered county officials to remove the Ten Commandments from the display.
Thursday's 2-1 decision by a panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that lower-court order.
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However, there was sharp disagreement on the three-judge panel over whether the county violated the constitutional rule against government endorsing or promoting religion.
The majority opinion by Judge David W. McKeague said the county's display did not have the primary purpose of endorsing or promoting religion and was, therefore, acceptable.
U.S. District Judge Karl S. Forester of Lexington, who sat on the federal appeals panel, joined in the majority decision.
Judge Karen Nelson Moore strongly dissented. The claim by county officials that the display was posted for educational purposes was a sham, she said.
William E. Sharp, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said those who sued the county are reviewing whether to appeal Thursday's decision.
The ACLU and two county residents filed the lawsuit seeking to have the Ten Commandments removed.
"We're disappointed with the decision," Sharp said.
Grayson County Judge-Executive Gary Logsdon said the county will continue the fight to post the Ten Commandments even if it goes to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We're just overwhelmed and thank the Lord," Logsdon said in reaction to the decision. "It gives you great hope of a moral country."
Logsdon said his office had fielded hundreds of calls Thursday from people congratulating the county for fighting to post the commandments.
The county plans to hold a celebration Monday and put the copy of the biblical laws back on the courthouse wall, Logsdon said.
The decision is the latest turn in the long-running controversy over posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings in Kentucky.
The state has been a key battleground on the issue, with some of the most prominent cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court originating here.
The ACLU and residents have sued a number of counties in the last decade over posting of the Ten Commandments, including Pulaski, McCreary, Harlan, Mercer, Rowan, Garrard and Jackson.
A case in which a federal judge ordered Pulaski and McCreary counties to take down copies of the Ten Commandments is pending before the federal appeals court. The judge ordered the counties to pay the ACLU $400,000 in fees and costs in that case, though that order is on hold.
People often criticize the ACLU for challenging Ten Commandments displays, saying they reflect the values of a majority of people.
Sharp, however, said the organization feels it is important to protect the rights of everyone and ensure that government does not become a vehicle to promote one religion over another, or to promote religion generally.
The court battle in Grayson County started after a Baptist minister approached the fiscal court in September 2001 about putting up a display of documents including the Ten Commandments.
The minister said he wanted the commandments posted "to keep government from pushing God out," but mentioned putting up other documents so the display might not be challenged, according to a court document.
The fiscal court gave its approval, and the preacher paid for the documents and hung them.
A federal judge ordered the commandments taken down in May 2002 as part of the challenge by the ACLU and local residents. They've been down since, Logsdon said.
The lawsuit argued that posting other documents such as the Mayflower Compact with the biblical laws was a pretext to cover the real motive behind the display — promoting religion.
The county, however, argued that the display was for educational purposes, "intended to reflect a sampling of documents that played a significant role in the development of the legal and governmental system of the United States."
As in some other Ten Commandments cases, the intent of local officials was a key issue in the case.
The dissenting judge said statements by local officials showed their main purpose in approving the display was to put up the Ten Commandments and therefore mostly to promote religion.
For instance, the motion to approve the display was that the county "place the Ten Commandments in the courthouse along with the historical documents," Moore said in her dissent.
"The county's asserted purpose here — that the display was posted for educational or historical reasons — is a sham and should be rejected," Moore wrote.
The majority opinion written by McKeague said the argument that county officials had a predominant religious motivation in posting the commandments might or might not be true.
However, the available evidence did not support a finding that promoting religion was the main reason for approving the display, the majority opinion said.
The officials didn't pass any resolutions stating a clear religious purpose and had little official involvement in the display, the opinion said.
Even if the minister had a religious purpose, there was no evidence that the county joined in that purpose, the ruling said.
The constitution is not meant to bar any mention of religion by a government body, so simply referring to the commandments did not prove a mostly religious motive, the ruling said.
"While there is no doubt that the fiscal court members could have been more explicit about their educational goals, we nonetheless find that, taken as a whole, the (display) endorses an educational message rather than a religious one," the two-judge majority ruled.