A copy of the Ten Commandments hung without fanfare Thursday in Georgia’s state Capitol is likely to add fuel to a longstanding debate: Does the biblical text belong in public buildings and spaces?
Over the past decade, similar displays have been embroiled in legal challenges, including one that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. A challenge could come here, too, although legislators passed a law earlier this year allowing the display.
“I’m not concerned if anyone will take offense,” said state Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who sponsored the bill (HB 766) allowing it. “If they don’t want to look at it, they don’t have to look at it.”
Georgia leaders said they were confident the display is legal. Opponents were not so sure.
“We oppose such displays because usually the reason they’re putting them up is solely to display the Ten Commandments,” said Maggie Garrett, legislative director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “We oppose the government putting up religious symbols … that create division rather than unity.”
Garrett said her organization would have to look at the actual display in the state Capitol before determining whether to take action against it.
The exhibit, located in a hallway near the Capitol’s first-floor snack shop, includes a copy of the Ten Commandments and eight other historical documents. Supporters call it the Foundations of American Law & Government Display.
All nine documents were spelled out in a 2006 state law, also sponsored by Benton, that allowed the Ten Commandments to be included in displays in judicial buildings and courthouses. Other documents include the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
This year’s law, signed in May by Gov. Nathan Deal, amended the earlier one to include all public buildings. It followed a push by former state lawmaker and Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph Hudgens to include the nine-document display in the Capitol itself.
Hudgens and his wife, Suzanne, paid for the copies hung Thursday and gave them to the Georgia Capitol Museum, which oversees artwork and other historical displays in Atlanta’s gold-domed Capitol building and made the decision to hang the new display.
“As far as the museum is concerned, we’re custodians of the building,” museum director Timothy Frilingos said. “From time to time, we do have requests from legislators. If we don’t see any harm, we try to put it up.”
The State Attorney General’s Office has not issued a formal legal opinion on the display, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Sam Olens said. But Benton said he consulted with Olens’ office on the amended law’s wording — which Frilingos mentioned when he was asked why the display went up now.
The copies were purchased through Ten Commandments Georgia, said Michael Griffin, director of the nonprofit group, which promotes the displays and helps government officials obtain document copies. According to the group’s website, the suggested cost of the framed set is $1,195. Griffin said copies are hung in more than 22 counties in Georgia.
Atlanta lawyer Gerry Weber, former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, said any possible legal challenge to the new display at the Capitol will hinge on the motivation behind it and its effect on the public.
“If challenged, a court will certainly look at the fact it’s in a prominent place in a very important state building,” Weber said. “That plays into the end question as to whether a reasonable person would think the state is endorsing religion or that people of minority faiths would feel like outsiders.”
Both Hudgens and Benton said their motivation was strictly historical. “I think the Georgia public needs to know the foundations of American freedom, and that’s what these are,” Hudgens said.
“The display itself has been upheld as constitutional by a number of courts,” said Mathew Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel who has successfully defended three displays similar to the new one at the state Capitol.
Contentious legal challenges to Ten Commandments displays have led to led to a number of high-profile rulings by Atlanta courts.
In 1993, U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob ordered Cobb County to take down the Ten Commandments at its courthouse in a decision that was upheld on appeal. The county had rejected a proposed compromise by Shoob, who told the county it should display the Commandments with other influential documents, such as the Code of Hammurabi and the writings of Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas.
A decade later, the federal appeals court in Atlanta ordered the removal of a Ten Commandments monument prominently displayed in the Alabama state judicial building in Montgomery. Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s refusal to obey that order led to his ouster in a historic decision rendered by a state tribunal.
The U.S. Supreme Court last ruled on challenges to Ten Commandments displays in 2005. In one case, it upheld a 6-foot tall granite Commandments display in Austin, Texas, but ruled unconstitutional displays at two Kentucky courthouses because the court’s majority found a religious motivation behind the two displays. The Kentucky displays had the same name and documents as the display in Georgia.
The Foundations of American Law & Government display hung Thursday at the state Capitol is comprised of nine framed copies that include:
- The Mayflower Compact
- The Ten Commandments, as extracted from Exodus Chapter 20
- The Declaration of Independence
- The Magna Carta
- “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key
- The National Motto: “In God We Trust …”
- The Preamble to the Georgia Constitution
- The Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution
- A description of the image of Lady Justice