Freethought Society v. Chester County

Freethought Society v. Chester County involved a First Amendment challenge to a plaque inscribed with the Ten Commandments located on the exterior of a county courthouse. The plaque was donated by a religious organization in 1920, and it had been on display since that time. The plaintiffs alleged that the placement of the Commandments violated the Establishment Clause because the plaque was placed for a religious purpose and a reasonable observer would perceive the display as an endorsement of religion. Applying the Endorsement Test first articulated by Justice O’Connor in Lynch v. Donnelly, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that the age of the plaque, combined with the fact that the county had done nothing to maintain, highlight, or celebrate the display since 1920, would lead an objective observer to believe that the plaque was merely a historic item that did not advance religion. Further, applying the Supreme Court’s test from Lemon v. Kurtzman, the court accepted the county’s argument that the purpose of leaving the display on the courthouse was to highlight the important secular meaning the Commandments have as a significant basis for much of American law. Because the county maintained the plaque for a secular reason and the display did not advance religion, it met the requirements of both the Lemon Test and the Endorsement Test; thus, the display did not violate the Establishment Clause.

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