There may be more Ten Commandment monuments on public land than on the grounds of houses of religious worship. They entered the public sphere during a few different campaigns. In the 1950s a monument fever swept the nation. Monuments gifted by charitable groups for display in public spaces were meant to nurture the perception of national unity during the cold war.
Inspired by the suggestion of Hollywood director Cecil B. De Mille, The Fraternal Order of Eagles was encouraged to shift its Ten Commandment plaque distribution program to one that gifted four, five and six foot tall granite monuments. Nearly 150 Ten Commandment monuments were erected on courthouse and school grounds, in public parks and civic spaces. While De Mille did not contribute financially, Paramount Pictures allowed weekly “Eagle’s Nights” showings of his blockbuster film ‘The Ten Commandments’ at local theaters. These showings both promoted the film as well as generated profits for the Eagles to use on the monument project. Three of the film’s primary stars also attended dedication ceremonies.
The Eagle’s Ten Commandment project was initiated by Minnesota Youth Judge E.J. Ruegemer. Under his direction the monument’s design included selected symbols that would not appear to favor one religion, such as two stars of David, an “all seeing” eye, the Greek letters chi and rho, and an Eagle clenching an American flag in its talons. Dedication ceremonies were intentionally low key and often included local leaders of various faiths. Even so, legal debates and court cases regarding the separation of church and state began soon after the first monument was dedicated in 1955. Court outcomes were unpredictable. Some communities chose to move their monuments rather than endure an expensive court case (a current defense of a Ten Commandment monument can cost a county $120,000). Some counties have opted instead to “convert” the small parcel of land directly beneath the monument to private land by selling it for a small sum. Some monuments seem to go unnoticed while others have been defaced or neglected. Others are vigorously defended, a few all the way to the Supreme Court.
In 1991 a second wave of Ten Commandments were inspired by Chief Justice Judge Roy Moore, then a new circuit judge in Etowah County Alabama, who was appointed after the elected judge died. In his first few weeks of duty Moore commissioned a five thousand pound Ten Commandment monument and had it installed in the rotunda of The Alabama Judicial Building without prior permission. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued to have it removed and won. Moore’s refusal to allow the removal of the monument was effective until he was suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court in 1993.
Judge Moore publicly argued for the educational importance of The Ten Commandments, and their being the basis of American Law. His monument’s lower portion was filled with quotes from The Declaration of Independence, the National Anthem, and George Washington’s Inaugural Address. This commingling of historic quotations next to or on the monument while ineffective in Moore’s case, has become a standard proactive defense measure. Newer monuments are clustered mostly in the south and installed by private individuals. Eagles membership has dwindled and the older ones are defended by budget strapped local governments spurred on by religious conservatives which are arguing for state control over local politics and against what they perceive as outside meddling by the federal government.