HOUSTON — The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday declined to review lower court rulings that a monument outside a courthouse featuring the Bible should be removed and that Harris County must pay the legal fees for the woman who sued over the monument.
Harris County Attorney Mike Stafford had asked the high court to vacate a ruling by U.S. District Judge Sim Lake, who sided with a woman who sued in 2003 claiming a monument featuring the King James Version of the Bible was offensive.
The monument, recently removed during courthouse renovations, had been in place since 1956 to honor a Houston businessman for his contributions to homeless programs.
A three-member panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 more than a year ago to uphold Lake’s ruling that the display violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The clause says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
The full 5th Circuit earlier this year upheld the ruling and ordered the county to pay legal fees.
“The ruling by Sim Lake was a very accurate ruling and actually depicts the law,” said Randall Kallinen, an attorney for the woman who brought the lawsuit, Kay Staley.
Kallinen said that under the law, when a government is found to impede civil rights, it is responsible for legal fees arising from lawsuits challenging the conduct.
A spokesman in Stafford’s office said the county attorney was not aware of the ruling and had no immediate comment.
“This case has always been about religious freedom,” Kallinen said. “In the United States, we are a nation of many religions. And to stick with one sect of Christianity, that one represented by the King James Version Bible only, is not what America is about.”
In its ruling earlier this year, the 5th Circuit said preserving Lake’s ruling would serve judicial and community interests by discouraging re-filing of lawsuits on the same issues by the same parties.
The appeals court also said it was not informed the monument had been moved until four days before it heard oral arguments in the case.
“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.
County officials had argued such a monument on public property did not violate the Constitution if it had religious content.
The cases are Harris County v. Staley, 07-100, and Staley v. Harris Couty, 07-286.