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A federal appeals court ruled unanimously Wednesday that a local trial judge in Ohio has no constitutional right to hang in his courtroom a poster of the Ten Commandments along with his own pointed comments about "moral relativism" and the rule of law.
In a 17-page order, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared that the presence of the poster in the courtroom of Richland County Common Pleas Court Judge James Deweese violated the First Amendment rights of lawyers and litigants appearing before him. Asserting that the judge's "secular" justification for the written message was "a sham," the federal appellate judges affirmed a lower court ruling ordering Deweese to take down the poster.
Hung on Deweese's courtroom wall in 2006, the poster includes the following comments from the judge himself above the familiar list of commandments: "There is a conflict of legal and moral philosophies raging in the United States. That conflict is between moral relativism and moral absolutism. We are moving towards moral relativism. All law is legislated morality. The only question is whose morality. Because morality is based on faith, there is no such thing as religious neutrality in law or morality.
"Ultimately," Deweese's poster states, "there are only two views: Either God is the final authority, and we acknowledge His unchanging standards of behavior. Or man is the final authority, and standards of behavior change at the whim of individuals or societies." In addition, underneath the commandments, the judge added this comment:
"The cases passing through this courtroom demonstrate we are paying a high cost in increased crime and other social ills for moving from moral absolutism to moral relativism since the mid 20th century. Our Founders saw the necessity of moral absolutes. . . . The Declaration of Independence acknowledges God as Creator, Lawgiver, 'Supreme Judge of the World,' and the One who providentially superintends the affairs of men. Ohio's Constitution acknowledges Almighty God as the source of our freedom. I join the Founders in personally acknowledging the importance of Almighty God's fixed moral standards for restoring the moral fabric of this nation."
The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, and the new ruling by the federal appellate judges marked the second time in the past 11 years they've had to admonish Deweese for his courtroom art. In 2000, he hung on his courtroom wall a copy of the Ten Commandments -- alone without any of his own comments -- before the federal courts ordered it taken down. In Wednesday's ruling, the 6th Circuit cited this litigation history in rejecting Deweese's new claims that he had a constitutional right to post the additional messages above and below the commandments in court.
The poster "sets forth overt religious messages and religious endorsements," the appeals panel wrote. "It is a display of the Ten Commandments editorialized by Defendant, a judge in an Ohio state court, exhorting a return to 'moral absolutes' which Defendant himself defines as the principles of the 'God of the Bible.' The poster is an explicit endorsement of religion by Defendant in contravention of the Establishment Clause."
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