Bye Bye Bible

5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds earlier ruling that Harris County courthouse Bible monument must go

In September 2003, shortly after Houston attorney Kay Staley filed suit against Harris County, asking that officials be ordered to remove a Bible on display in a monument to philanthropist William Mosher outside the Harris Co. Courthouse, supporters of the so-called Bible monument, joined by several county officials including Co. Judge Robert Eckels and District Judge John Devine, held a large rally and prayer on the courthouse plaza, railing against Staley's attempt to have the tome removed. One woman told reporters that she was "ready to die" for the cause because the Bible is the "essence of Christianity."

Despite county officials' assurance that they would fight to keep the Bible on display, in 2004, federal District Judge Sim Lake sided with Staley, ruling that the "purpose and effect" of having the Bible encased in the monument were religious and thus violated the Constitution's Establishment Clause. County officials appealed, but on Aug. 16, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Lake's ruling that the Bible must go. Because an "objective observer … would conclude that [the monument's] current purpose … has evolved into, and presently constitutes, a religious symbol, the Mosher monument containing the Bible violates the Establishment Clause," Justice E. Grady Jolly wrote.

Back in 1956, when Houston's Star of Hope Mission initially erected the monument, with the blessing of Harris Co. commissioners, as a way to honor their benefactor Mosher, the inclusion of the Bible wouldn't likely have been considered unconstitutional, the court noted, because its purpose was more secular, as an homage to Mosher's religiosity. However, Jolly wrote, when Devine and his court reporter Karen Friend undertook efforts to refurbish the monument – which had been vandalized so many times that the Bible was finally removed in 1988 – its purpose took a decidedly religious turn. Devine – who'd campaigned for judge on a platform of putting Christianity back into government – outfitted the bible with red neon lighting, and Friend took it upon herself to occasionally turn the book's pages, in order to highlight certain passages. "Neither Judge Devine nor Friend had any relationship with Mosher, Mosher's family, or Star of Hope," Jolly wrote. "Any suggestion that the primary concern, or even one significant concern, of Devine and Friend was to honor Mosher is factually baseless." Further, the "refurbishment decisions" – like adding the red neon lighting, "highlighting and illuminating the religious portion of the monument" – weren't made by anyone in a "museum-curator-type position, but instead all decisions appear to have been made by Friend and/or Judge Devine, whose motivations and interests seem to have been purely religious." Moreover, Jolly noted, Devine called on several Christian ministers to speak at the monument's rededication ceremony in 1995. "Based on these events, the reasonable observer would conclude that the monument, with the Bible outlined in red neon lighting, had evolved into a predominantly religious symbol," Jolly concluded.

Staley was thrilled: "The opinion signals that "we are a country of many religions, and the government should not be promoting one over another," she said. "I'm delighted they upheld the Constitution." Still, county officials told the Houston Chronicle that they will likely ask for the case to be reheard by all 19 judges of the 5th Circuit. "I don't think that the monument's essential nature can morph into something unconstitutional," Harris Co. Attorney Mike Stafford told the daily.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause, Harris County Courthouse Bible Monument, Kay Staley, William Mosher, Star of Hope Mission, Bible monument

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