HOUSTON A federal judge yesterday gave Harris County 10 days to remove a Bible from a monument outside its civil courts building.
U.S. District Judge Sim Lake ruled in Staley v. Harris County that the display violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. He also ordered the county to pay $41,000 in court costs and attorneys' fees in the lawsuit that contended the display of the Bible on county property was unconstitutional.
"The court concludes that the purpose of the Bible display is to encourage people to read the Bible," Lake wrote. "What other purpose could there be for prominently displaying an open Bible in an illuminated case tilted toward passers-by in a heavily frequented plaza in front of the main entrance to the courthouse?"
Lake said Harris County should be exercising religious neutrality and "not be seen as endorsing Christianity."
"But that does not mean that by requiring the removal of the Bible from the Mosher monument, this court, the drafters of the Bill of Rights, or the United States government are hostile to religion," the judge wrote. "It means that everyone is free to adopt and practice his or her own faith, or not to adopt any for of faith, without any pressure, direct or implied, from government."
Real estate broker and attorney Kay Staley sued the county last August. She said she decided to file a lawsuit after witnessing the controversy in Alabama surrounding a judge's refusal to remove a monument bearing the Ten Commandments from the state's judicial building.
"That is what happens when you don't confront these things," Staley said of the Alabama case. "There are a lot of these Ten Commandments/Bibles in a lot of places and they need to be removed. As the court said today, the government needs to be neutral and not endorsing one religion over another.
"I'm delighted. Just delighted. It is just a wonderful day for religious freedom and religious diversity."
The Bible has been part of the lighted display outside the Harris County courthouse since 1995 when the monument that contains it was refurbished. It was originally erected in 1956 to honor industrialist William Mosher for his contributions to homeless programs.
Officials at the homeless mission Mosher contributed to said a Bible was placed within the monument to symbolize Mosher's Christian faith.
The homeless mission maintained the display from 1956 to 1995. Until 1988 the mission regularly replaced the Bible, a frequent target of theft by vandals. When in 1988 atheists complained about the display and asked that it be removed, the mission "decided either to remove the Bible or not to replace it again, rather than face potentially costly litigation," Lake wrote.
From 1988 to 1995, the top of the monument remained "open and empty, and it was often used as a trash bin," the judge wrote.
Then in 1995, a county judge campaigned on "a platform of putting Christianity back into government" and worked to restore the monument. The Bible was replaced through private donations.
Harris County did not pay for any improvements to the monument or for the new Bible, but it has paid for the electricity that has illuminated the monument since 1995 at a cost of $93.15 a year, Lake wrote.
The county argued that the display was a private expression of free speech by the mission and the county should not be held responsible for its contents.
"County officials approved both the original inclusion of the Bible in the Mosher memorial monument in 1956 and its reintroduction in 1995," Lake wrote. "By allowing an open Bible to be displayed in front of the main entrance to the courthouse, the county has allowed the communication of the Christian religious message that the Star of Hope Mission and Judge (John) Devine sought to advance."
Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said he was reviewing the opinion with the county attorney to develop strategies for an appeal. He said he continued "to believe the monument as it stands today, with the Bible, is an appropriate memorial to William Mosher for his work."