McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky

545 U.S. 844 (2005)

Quick Summary

ACLU of Kentucky (plaintiff) involved a dispute over Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky county courthouses initiated by McCreary and Pulaski Counties (defendants). After multiple revisions of these displays, the ACLU continued to argue that they violated the Establishment Clause. The issue presented to the Supreme Court was whether these displays had an impermissible religious purpose.

The Supreme Court concluded that the displays did indeed violate the Establishment Clause due to their predominantly religious nature, affirming the lower courts’ decisions.

Facts of the Case

In McCreary and Pulaski Counties, Kentucky, officials displayed large, gold-framed copies of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (plaintiff) challenged these displays, claiming they violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The counties subsequently expanded the displays to include historical documents with religious references, calling this the ‘Foundations of American Law and Government Exhibit.’ The plaintiffs argued that the displays still had a predominantly religious purpose.

The counties later revised the exhibits again, adding new documents and expanding on others, but the ACLU maintained that the displays’ religious purpose persisted. The dispute arose from the counties’ actions starting in the summer of 1999 and continued through subsequent modifications of the displays in response to legal challenges.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. The ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal district court against McCreary and Pulaski Counties, alleging violations of the Establishment Clause.
  2. The district court ruled that all three displays had a religious purpose and violated the Establishment Clause.
  3. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.
  4. McCreary and Pulaski Counties appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the display of the Ten Commandments in county courthouses violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Rule of Law

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and nonreligion. To pass constitutional muster under this clause, government action must have a secular legislative purpose that is genuine and not merely secondary to a religious objective.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court analyzed the purpose behind the counties’ display of the Ten Commandments using an ‘objective observer’ standard, considering text, legislative history, and implementation. The Court determined that the counties’ actions were not neutral with respect to religion as they predominantly sought to advance religion over nonreligion.

The progression of exhibits, from solely displaying the Ten Commandments to including additional documents with religious references, indicated a clear religious intent rather than a secular educational one.

Further, the Court held that it is appropriate to consider the history of governmental actions when evaluating purpose. An observer would be aware of this history, including prior unconstitutional displays, which informed the conclusion that the counties’ stated secular purposes were pretexts for advancing a religious objective.


The Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts’ rulings that the displays violated the Establishment Clause, as they had a predominantly religious purpose.

Dissenting Opinions

Judge Ryan dissented in part, arguing that religion has played a foundational role in American law and government, and that there was no need to invalidate a display that reflects this historical influence.

Key Takeaways

  1. The government must maintain neutrality between religion and nonreligion under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
  2. Purpose behind government action is evaluated using an ‘objective observer’ standard which considers text, legislative history, and implementation of statutes.
  3. The historical context and progression of governmental actions are relevant in determining their purpose and constitutionality under the Establishment Clause.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What are the constitutional limits on government endorsement of religion?

Constitutional limits on government endorsement of religion stem from the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government actions that favor one religion over another or promote religion over non-religion. The key is maintaining strict neutrality in religious matters.

  • For example: A city cannot fund a Nativity scene without also allowing secular or other religious displays during the holiday season.

How does an 'objective observer' standard apply to assessing government neutrality in religious matters?

An ‘objective observer’ standard requires examining whether a reasonable person, informed about the context and history behind the government action, would perceive it as endorsing or disfavoring a particular religion or religion in general.

  • For example: If a state capitol has a longstanding tradition of displaying a Christmas tree, an objective observer might view it as cultural heritage rather than an endorsement of Christianity.

What constitutes a 'secular legislative purpose' under the Establishment Clause?

A ‘secular legislative purpose’ means that the primary intent of government action must be non-religious. Even if the action has some incidental religious effect, it is constitutional as long as its primary purpose and effect are secular.

  • For example: Providing police protection for a religious parade is constitutional since the primary purpose is public safety, a secular concern.


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