Stone v. Graham/Opinion of the Court

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A Kentucky statute requires the posting of a copy of the Ten Commandments, purchased with private contributions, on the wall of each public classroom in the State.[1] Petitioners, claiming that this statute violates the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment,[2] sought an injunction against its enforcement. The state trial court upheld the statute, finding that its "avowed purpose" was "secular and not religious," and that the statute would "neither advance nor inhibit any religion or religious group" nor involve the State excessively in religious matters. App. to Pet. for Cert. 38-39. The Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Kentucky affirmed by an equally divided court. 599 S.W.2d 157 (1980). We reverse.

This Court has announced a three-part test for determining whether a challenged state statute is permissible under the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution:

"First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion...; finally the statute must not foster 'an excessive government entanglement with religion.'" Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-613 (1971) (citations omitted).

If a statute violates any of these three principles, it must be 41*41 struck down under the Establishment Clause. We conclude that Kentucky's statute requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school rooms has no secular legislative purpose, and is therefore unconstitutional.

The Commonwealth insists that the statute in question serves a secular legislative purpose, observing that the legislature required the following notation in small print at the bottom of each display of the Ten Commandments: "The secular application of the Ten Commandments is clearly seen in its adoption as the fundamental legal code of Western Civilization and the Common Law of the United States." 1978 Ky. Acts, ch. 436, § 1 (effective June 17, 1978), Ky. Rev. Stat. § 158.178 (1980).

The trial court found the "avowed" purpose of the statute to be secular, even as it labeled the statutory declaration "self-serving." App. to Pet. for Cert. 37. Under this Court's rulings, however, such an "avowed" secular purpose is not sufficient to avoid conflict with the First Amendment. In Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), this Court held unconstitutional the daily reading of Bible verses and the Lord's Prayer in the public schools, despite the school district's assertion of such secular purposes as "the promotion of moral values, the contradiction to the materialistic trends of our times, the perpetration of our institutions and the teaching of literature." Id., at 223.

The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths,[3] and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one's parents, killing or murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness. See Exodus 20:12-17; Deuteronomy 5:16-21. Rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord's name in vain, and observing the Sabbath Day. See Exodus 20:1-11; Deuteronomy 5:6-15.

This is not a case in which the Ten Commandments are integrated into the school curriculum, where the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like. Abington School District v. Schempp, supra, at 225. Posting of religious texts on the wall serves no such educational function. If the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the Commandments. However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.

It does not matter that the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are financed by voluntary private contributions, for the mere posting of the copies under the auspices of the legislature provides the "official support of the State...Government" that the Establishment Clause prohibits. 374 U.S., at 222; see Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 431 (1962).[4] Nor is it significant that the Bible verses involved in this case are merely posted on the wall, rather than read aloud as in Schempp and Engel, for "it is no defense to urge that the religious practices here may be relatively minor encroachments on the First Amendment." Abington School District v. Schempp, supra, at 225. We conclude that Ky. Rev. Stat. § 158.178 (1980) violates the first part of the Lemon v. Kurtzman test, and thus the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.[5]

The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, and the judgment below is reversed.

It is so ordered.

The Chief Justice and Justice Blackmun dissent. They would grant certiorari and give this case plenary consideration.

Justice Stewart dissents from this summary reversal of the courts of Kentucky, which, so far as appears, applied wholly correct constitutional criteria in reaching their decisions.


  1. . The statute provides in its entirety:
  2. . The first Amendment provides in relevant part: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." This prohibition is applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 215-216 (1963).
  3. . As this Court commented in Abington School District v. Schempp, supra, at 224: "Surely the place of the Bible as an instrument of religion cannot be gainsaid...."
  4. . Moreover, while the actual copies of the Ten Commandments were purchased through private contributions, the State nevertheless expended public money in administering the statute. For example, the statute requires that the state treasurer serve as a collecting agent for the contributions. Ky. Rev. Stat. § 158.178 (3) (1980).
  5. . The Supreme Court cases cited by the dissenting opinion as contrary, Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, 413 U.S. 756 (1973); Sloan v. Lemon, 413 U.S. 825 (1973); Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971); Board of Education v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236 (1968), are easily distinguishable: all are cases involving state assistance to private schools. Such assistance has the obvious legitimate secular purpose of promoting educational opportunity. The posting of the Ten Commandments on classroom walls has no such secular purpose.