Stone v. Graham/Dissent Rehnquist

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Stone v. Graham
Dissent Rehnquist by William Rehnquist
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Case Syllabus
Per Curiam Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

Justice Rehnquist, dissenting.

With no support beyond its own ipse dixit, the Court concludes that the Kentucky statute involved in this case "has no secular legislative purpose," ante, at 41 (emphasis supplied), and that "[t]he pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature," ibid. This even though, as the trial court found, "[t]he General Assembly thought the statute had a secular legislative purpose and specifically said so." App. to Pet. for Cert. 37. The Court's summary rejection of a secular purpose articulated by the legislature and confirmed by the state court is without precedent in Establishment Clause jurisprudence. This Court regularly looks to legislative articulations of a statute's purpose in Establishment Clause cases and accords such pronouncements the deference they are due. See, e. g., Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, 413 U.S. 756, 773 (1973) ("we need touch only briefly on the requirement of a 'secular legislative purpose.' As the recitation of legislative purposes appended to New York's law indicates, each measure is adequately supported by legitimate, nonsectarian state interests"); Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 613 (1971) ("the statutes themselves clearly state they are intended to enhance the quality of the secular education"); Sloan v. Lemon, 413 U.S. 825, 829-830 (1973); Board of Education v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236, 243 (1968). See also Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, 619 F.2d 1311, 1314 (CA8) (upholding rules permitting public school Christmas observances with religious elements as promoting the articulated secular purpose of "advanc[ing] the student's knowledge and appreciation of the role that our religious heritage has played in the social, cultural and historical development of civilization"), cert. denied, post, p. 987. The fact that the asserted secular purpose may overlap with what some may see as a religious objective does not render it unconstitutional. As this Court stated in McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 445 (1961), in upholding the validity of Sunday closing laws, "the present purpose and effect of most of [these laws] is to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens; the fact that this day is Sunday, a day of particular significance for the dominant Christian sects, does not bar the state from achieving its secular goals."

Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), repeatedly cited by the Court, is not to the contrary. No statutory findings of secular purpose supported the challenged enactments in that case. In one of the two cases considered in Abington School District the trial court had determined that the challenged exercises were intended by the State to be religious exercises. Id., at 223. A contrary finding is presented here. In the other case no specific finding had been made, and "the religious character of the exercise was admitted by the State," id., at 224.[1]

The Court rejects the secular purpose articulated by the State because the Decalogue is "undeniably a sacred text," ante, at 41. It is equally undeniable, however, as the elected representatives of Kentucky determined, that the Ten Commandments have had a significant impact on the development of secular legal codes of the Western World. The trial court concluded that evidence submitted substantiated this determination. App. to Pet. for Cert. 38. See also Anderson v. Salt Lake City Corp., 475 F.2d 29, 33 (CA10 1973) (upholding construction on public land of monument inscribed with Ten Commandments because they have "substantial secular attributes"). Certainly the State was permitted to conclude that a document with such secular significance should be placed before its students, with an appropriate statement of the document's secular import. See id., at 34 ("It does not seem reasonable to require removal of a passive monument, involving no compulsion, because its accepted precepts, as a foundation for law, reflect the religious nature of an ancient era").[2] See also Opinion of the Justices, 108 N. H. 97, 228 A.2d 161 (1967) (upholding placement of plaques with the motto "In God We Trust" in public schools).

The Establishment Clause does not require that the public sector be insulated from all things which may have a religious significance or origin. This Court has recognized that "religion has been closely identified with our history and government," Abington School District, supra, at 212, and that "[t]he history of man is inseparable from the history of religion," Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 434 (1962). Kentucky has decided to make students aware of this fact by demonstrating the secular impact of the Ten Commandments. The words of Justice Jackson, concurring in McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 235-236 (1948), merit quotation at length:

"I think it remains to be demonstrated whether it is possible, even if desirable, to comply with such demands as plaintiff's completely to isolate and cast out of secular education all that some people may reasonably regard as religious instruction. Perhaps subjects such as mathematics, physics or chemistry are, or can be, completely secularized. But it would not seem practical to teach either practice or appreciation of the arts if we are to forbid exposure of youth to any religious influences. Music without sacred music, architecture minus the cathedral, or painting without the scriptural themes would be eccentric and incomplete, even from a secular point of view.... I should suppose it is a proper, if not an indispensable, part of preparation for a worldly life to know the roles that religion and religions have played in the tragic story of mankind. The fact is that, for good or for ill, nearly everything in our culture worth transmitting, everything which gives meaning to life, is saturated with religious influences, derived from paganism, Judaism, Christianity--both Catholic and Protestant--and other faiths accepted by a large part of the world's peoples. One can hardly respect the system of education that would leave the student wholly ignorant of the currents of religious thought that move the world society for a part in which he is being prepared."

I therefore dissent from what I cannot refrain from describing as a cavalier summary reversal, without benefit of oral argument or briefs on the merits, of the highest court of Kentucky.


^ . The Court noted that even if the State's purpose were not strictly religious, "it is sought to be accomplished through readings, without comment, from the Bible." 374 U.S., at 224. Here of course there was no compelled reading, and there was comment accompanying the text of the Commandments, mandated by statute and focusing on their secular significance.

^ . The Court's emphasis on the religious nature of the first part of the Ten Commandments is beside the point. The document as a whole has had significant secular impact, and the Constitution does not require that Kentucky students see only an expurgated or redacted version containing only the elements with directly traceable secular effects.