Supreme Court Considers
Hare Krishna Tree

BY: SUN Staff

Aug 2, USA (SUN) — A few weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court rendered a decision in the case of McCreary County v. the ACLU of Kentucky, which was first argued before the Court in March, 2005. At issue was whether government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments in county courthouses violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit involved two Kentucky counties who had each posted large, readily visible copies of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses, in response to which the ACLU brought suit. Various changes were made to the displays, with attempts by Kentucky officials to have the case dismissed. The Sixth Circuit Court held that the initial display in each county courthouse clearly reflected an impermissible purpose to promote religion, and that post-litigation changes in the two displays did not fundamentally alter their religious message.

Following the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of the ACLU, the Supreme Court on June 27th ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Ten Commandments display is, in fact, unconstitutional. Interestingly, the Supreme Court justices heard a very similar case on that same day, Van Orden v. Perry, in which they came to the opposite verdict.

A pivotal element in these similar cases that resulted in the opposite rulings was a distinction the Court made between those religious displays that clearly present a singular religious message, and those religious displays which are integrated with a secular message.

A variety of references were provided to the Court to illustrate instances where state or federal institutions had approved or instituted various types of religious displays. One of the documents before the Supreme Court in this matter was a Writ of amicus curiae (friend of the court) file by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in support of the Kentucky petitioners. In their Writ, the Becket Fund set forth a variety of examples of public religious symbols that illustrate the assertion that the U.S. government historically has, and should in future, be permitted to freely express cultural messages that reflect the full range of American religious diversity.

One of the references included in the Writ was the memorial for Srila Prabhupada's Hare Krishna Tree in Tompkins Square Park, New York City. As stated in the Writ:

    “Government cultural expression-in virtually every conceivable form-has included religious elements since the Founding. This phenomenon is not only long-standing and pervasive, but it has kept pace with the vast and ever-increasing diversity of religious faiths in America. What follows are some examples of government expression reflecting the breadth of that diversity.

    A. Displays, Monuments, and Memorials

    In 1966, Srila Prabhupada began reciting a Hare Krishna prayer under a tree in Tompkins Square Park in New York City, thus introducing his faith into American culture for the first time. On November 18, 2001, the City of New York's Department of Parks and Recreation dedicated a plaque to mark that tree as the “Hare Krishna Tree,” and to commemorate the “founding of the Hare Krishna religion in the United States.” 4
    4 See Srila Prabhupada's Hare Krishna Tree, available at newyork.htm (last visited Dec. 8, 2004).

Click here for a copy of the Writ,
with the above reference on pages 11 to 12.

We can see in the Supreme Court's decision that the U.S. government is encouraged to freely express, and to foster the free expression of, religious principles that are secularly integrated. At the same time, the Court made clear that religious messages presented singularly, for the purpose of emphasizing the theology of one religion over another, or for the purpose of shading the judicial process in favour of a particular religion -- or even in favour of religion over non-religion -- are not permitted by the First Amendment.

We are encouraged to see that Srila Prabhupada's Krishna Consciousness movement, as memorialized by the Hare Krishna tree, is acknowledged as being a bona fide and significant religious movement having taken root in America, and that this acknowledgement has manifest in front of the highest court in the land.

Further reference:

American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky v. McCreary County, Kentucky, 01-5935," United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, at: ' ACLUs defense of religious liberty


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