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In 2004, native Texan and Austin resident Thomas Van Orden filed suit against several state government officials seeking the removal of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol building. Van Orden claimed that the monument violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from endorsing religion or establishing an official religion. Rick Perry, at that time the governor of Texas, responded to the suit, claiming that the monument was intended to show respect for the state’s religious heritage.


By the time of Van Orden's lawsuit, the Ten Commandments monument had stood at the capitol for over forty years, having been gifted to the state by the Texas chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Inspired by the famous 1956 movie, The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston, the Fraternal Order of Eagles had distributed copies of the Ten Commandments to young people. Later, the organization expanded its work, offering stone monuments for public display in places like the Texas Capitol.


Van Orden pursued his case through the Texas court system, which consistently upheld the constitutionality of the monument. The Federal District Court and Federal Appeals Court likewise sided with Texas. In 2005 the Supreme Court agreed to hear Van Orden and a similar case, McCreary v. American Civil Liberties.

- Brandon Fahrenfort

Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case


Did the Ten Commandments monument on the Texas State Capital grounds violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which prohibits the federal and state governments from endorsing religion.



Citation and Decision

Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005) | Full Decision

In a 5-4 decision delivered by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court, found that the Ten Commandments monument did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Although drawing from religion, the monument had been donated by a civic club rather than a religious organization. Furthermore, with the Texas legislature's consent, the monument had stood on the Texas statehouse grounds for over forty years. Therefore, it was an historical rather than a religious monument and consequently did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.


Discussion Questions


1. Does having the Ten Commandments on the monument unduly favor the Christian religion over another, which goes against the Establishment Clause?

2. Should McCreary County v American Civil Liberties Union and Van Orden v Perry have had the same decision?

3. Should future cases be dismissed on the basis that the content of the case has been accepted and unchallenged for a long period of time? If so, how long must this period be?

4. Where should the line be drawn between acknowledging religious heritage and endorsement of religion?

5. What are some examples of content from a religious source being used in a non-religious context?

6. Every past United States President barring two (Theodore Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams) has been sworn into office with their hand on a religious text (almost exclusively a Christian bible). Where does this fall in terms of the Establishment Clause?

7. Does having “In God we Trust” displayed on currency convey an establishment of religion?


Oyez: Abington v. Schempp

Oyez: Van Orden v. Perry

CSPAN Interview after oral arguments

Interview: Thomas Van Orden


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