HOUSTON — A federal appeals court panel yesterday upheld a ruling that forced the removal of a Bible from a monument in front of a Harris County courthouse.
"Its recent history would force an objective observer to conclude that it is a religious symbol of a particular faith located on public grounds," a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 decision.
Harris County had appealed the August 2004 decision of U.S. District Judge Sim Lake that the display at the civil courthouse violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Harris County had appealed the ruling.
The Bible has been part of the lighted display since 1995, when the monument was refurbished. The monument originally was erected in 1956 to honor industrialist William Mosher for his contributions to homeless programs.
The majority in Staley v. Harris County, Texas said that the monument was secular in purpose when it was erected, but that its character changed when former state District Court Judge John Devine and his court reporter, Karen Friend, refurbished it.
Kay Staley, a real estate broker and lawyer, sued Harris County in August 2003 claiming the display was offensive to non-Christians. She said she was delighted by yesterday's ruling.
"It says we are a country of many religions and the government should not be promoting one over another," Staley said in yesterday's online edition of the Houston Chronicle. "We are not a Christian nation. We are a nation of many religions or no religion."
Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith disagreed with the opinion by Judges E. Grady Jolly and Patrick E. Higginbotham.
"The panel majority exhibits an appalling hostility to any hint of religion in public spaces," he said in his dissent.
He disagreed that refurbishment of the monument changed it to a religious purpose, saying that the judge only intended to "restore that monument to its former glory."
Harris County Attorney Mike Stafford said the county would probably ask for a review by the entire court. The county has the option of appealing the decision to all 19 members of the 5th Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court. Stafford said the county's chances of prevailing before the Supreme Court were good.
"I don't think that the monument's essential nature can morph into something unconstitutional," Stafford said.
Randall L. Kallinen, a civil rights lawyer who represented Staley and now heads the Houston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he believed the ruling would stand.
"To take all the taxpayers' money in Harris County and use it to promote one religion is highly insensitive to other religions because Harris County has many religions," Kallinen told the Associated Press.
The Bible has been missing from the monument since early 2005, when the appeals court ordered it removed while it considered the county's appeal.