The touchstone for the court's analysis of whether government action has a "secular legislative purpose" is the principle that the First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion. When the government acts with the ostensible and predominant purpose of advancing religion, it violates that central Establishment Clause value of official religious neutrality, there being no neutrality when the government's ostensible object is to take sides. Lemon's "purpose" requirement aims at preventing government from abandoning neutrality and acting with the intent of promoting a particular point of view in religious matters. Manifesting a purpose to favor one faith over another, or adherence to religion generally, clashes with the understanding, reached after decades of religious war, that liberty and social stability demand a religious tolerance that respects the religious views of all citizens. By showing a purpose to favor religion, the government sends the message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members. Further, the purpose apparent from government action can have an impact more significant than the result expressly decreed.
After the ACLU sued to enjoin the counties' displays of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses, the counties adopted resolutions calling for more extensive exhibits to show that the Ten Commandments were Kentucky's "precedent legal code." Subsequently, the counties revised the exhibits to post new displays entitled the "Foundations of American Law and Government" with the professed intent of educating citizens as to nine documents including the Ten Commandments. Two Kentucky counties entered injunctions for violation of the Establishment Clause.
Does the display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses violate the Establishment Clause?
The Court ruled that all of the displays violated the Establishment Clause because they did not have a secular legislative purpose. The Court further held that it was necessary to take purpose seriously under the Establishment Clause and to understand purpose in light of context. Therefore, the lower courts properly considered the progression leading up to the counties' third displays in determining that a religious objective permeated the counties' actions. The Court emphasized the importance of neutrality as an interpretive guide to the Establishment Clause.