Are the Ten Commandments secular enough to warrant posting in all public school classes, or are they so religious that such postings would amount to a government endorsement of religion aimed at impressionable children? Does the fact that the government says their purpose is secular suffice to regard the actions as actually secular?
In Kentucky, the legislature passed a law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in each public school classroom in the state. The posters were paid for by private contributions and not state funds.
Perhaps expecting Establishment Clause challenges, the law also required the following notation at the bottom of each poster:
"The secular application of the Ten Commandments is clearly seen in its adoption as the fundamental legal code of Western civilization and the Common Law of the United States."
In a 5-4 Court Decision with a rare unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court ruled the Kentucky law unconstitutional.
The Court used the Lemon test to analyze the constitutionality of the Kentucky law, finding that it violated the first prong it did not have a secular legislative purpose.
The assertion by Kentucky at the bottom of the posters that its law had a secular purpose (to show students the influence of the Ten Commandments on the legal structure of Western society) did not necessarily make it so:
"The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments is undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposedly secular purpose can blind us to that fact."
The posting of the Ten Commandments essentially lacks any valid educational function and the Court found it irrelevant that the copies were purchased with private contributions because the mere posting of the Commandments demonstrated official support of their message.
This decision stated that any requirement of religious symbols or teachings is sufficient to show governmental endorsement of their message, regardless of who ultimately funds them. Even if the schools hope for the Ten Commandments to be viewed through a secular framework, their historical and religious basis makes them irrefutably religious. This, then, makes such displays unconstitutional because the government is not permitted to endorse directly or indirectly any religious message or doctrine.