BALTIMORE — Attorneys in Maryland are examining a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions made yesterday about the Ten Commandments to determine how the rulings might affect a recent decision by a federal judge that allowed a privately owned religious display in a Frederick, Md., city park.
An authority in constitutional law says the underlying question is one of purpose: Whether the city intended the monument to promote religion.
“It really turns on the difficult decision of how you go about discerning what the motive is behind a decision that allows something religious in nature to be on public property,” said Robert Percival, a constitutional law professor at the University of Maryland.
In one of yesterday’s Supreme Court cases, the justices said a 6-foot-high granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol — one of 17 historical displays on the 22-acre lot — was a legitimate tribute to the nation’s legal and religious history.
In the other, the court said framed copies of the Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses went too far in endorsing religion.
The justices effectively said that issues of Ten Commandments displays in courthouses should be resolved on a case-by-case basis.
In the Frederick case, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. in Baltimore ruled last Tuesday that no reasonable observer would think a privately owned, 5-foot-high granite marker in the city park is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.
Judge Quarles also found that the city’s sale of the monument and an accompanying strip of parkland to the local Fraternal Order of Eagles chapter in 2002 was proper.
Plaintiffs Roy Chambers and the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State argued the transaction was a sham designed to keep the monument on what appeared to be city land.
Mr. Chamber’s attorney, Ben Block, said yesterday that he and his client would have to read both decisions before they can decide whether to appeal the ruling.
But other opponents of the monument seemed certain that the Supreme Court rulings would mean the Quarles decision would be overturned, should an appeal be sought.
“These opinions will be incredibly important for an appeal,” said Richard B. Katskee, assistant legal director for Americans United. “The court of appeals will have to focus on the purpose for the land sale, and not just say the land is no longer owned by the government and therefore there’s no violation.”
A supporter pointed out that the Frederick monument, like the one in Texas, is in a space with dozens of other displays.
“I think Frederick is in fine shape after today — in fact, they’re in better shape,” said Francis Manion, senior counsel with the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington-based group that supports public expressions of religion. “This type of display is valid.”
Mr. Percival compared the Frederick issue to cases during the civil rights struggle, when public accommodations that had been ordered to integrate sometimes shut down, only to later reopen as private property.