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5th Circuit: Fight over Bible in courthouse display moot

By The Associated Press

HOUSTON — A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that a legal battle over the display of a Bible on a monument in front of a Harris County courthouse was moot because the county removed the monument last January.

But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling in Staley v. Harris County, didn't vacate a federal judge's ruling that barred the Bible from being displayed in the monument. Harris County officials said they might appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A three-member panel of the 5th Circuit ruled 2-1 in August to uphold the 2004 decision of U.S. District Judge Sim Lake that the display violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The county asked the full 5th Circuit to declare the case moot because the monument was moved from the courthouse while the building undergoes renovations. The county also asked that Lake's ruling be vacated.

A majority of the 16-judge panel said preserving Lake's ruling would serve judicial and community interests by discouraging the refiling of lawsuits on the same issues by the same parties.

Kay Staley, a real estate broker and lawyer, sued Harris County in August 2003 claiming the display at a civil courthouse was offensive to non-Christians.

Harris County has argued such a monument on public property does not violate the Constitution if it has religious content.

In its ruling, the appeals court said it was not informed the monument had been moved until four days before it heard oral arguments in the case in January.

"Should we vacate, Staley will be denied her judgment, not because her claim lacked merit, nor because of her choices or acts, but for the reason that Harris County, by its 'last-minute' voluntary acts, removed (temporarily) the monument from public viewing," the appeals court wrote in its 18-page ruling.

Three judges on the 5th Circuit disagreed the case was moot, while two others believed Lake's ruling should be vacated.

Randall Kallinen, Staley's lawyer, said his client was pleased Lake's ruling wasn't vacated.

"Lake's ruling is good for the continued viability of the establishment clause that protects every citizen's right to worship as they see fit and not how the government tells them to worship," Kallinen said.

Harris County Attorney Mike Stafford said he was considering asking the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate Lake's ruling.

"We hope that the high court would render a decision eliminating the inequity of allowing the district court's judgment to stand when Harris County has been effectively precluded from having that judgment reviewed on the merits," Stafford said in a statement.

Stafford was quoted by the Houston Chronicle as saying, "It is not going to be a victory for the county until the monument is ruled not unconstitutional."

The monument was erected in 1956 to honor industrialist William Mosher for his contributions to homeless programs.

Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Legal Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on religious issues and First Amendment rights, said his group was pleased with the ruling because the appeals court didn't say the monument can't be put up somewhere else.

"It's totally constitutional if done in the right way," he said, adding the Mosher family would like the monument to be displayed again with the Bible.

Harris County told the appeals court it had made no decisions on when, where or how the monument would be displayed in the future.

Justices won't take up dispute over Texas Bible monument
Harris County officials had asked high court to vacate lower court ruling that courthouse display featuring King James Version of Bible violated establishment clause. 11.27.07

5th Circuit upholds Bible removal from courthouse
Panel says Houston display violates establishment clause; county vows to appeal. 08.16.06


ACLU challenges Jesus painting in La. courthouse

Slidell city judge says he doesn't believe portrait violates Constitution, says it will stay up unless federal court orders it removed. 07.09.07

Establishment clause

Ten Commandments, other displays & mottos

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