High Court Splits on Ten Commandments


The fate of Ten Commandments displays in state capitols and courthouses from Alabama to Maine to Montana is left hanging by two divided U.S. Supreme Court rulings that fail to render the final word on when it's permissible to inject God into the public square.

Legal experts say the rulings will lead to case-by-case litigation to settle the constitutionality of thousands of religious symbols on public property, including depictions of the stone tablets Moses carried down from Mount Sinai that adorn at least four state capitols and city or county property in at least 41 states.

>The test will be whether a religious symbol is legally more like a 6-foot, granite Ten Commandments tablet on the grounds of the Texas Capitol that was approved on a 5-4 vote by the U.S. Supreme Court, or more like framed copies of the Ten Commandments at the back of two Kentucky courthouses that were blacklisted by the court, also on a 5-4 vote.

The justices ruled that public displays of the Decalogue -- including in a frieze adorning the high court chamber -- are not inherently unconstitutional. The court OK'd the Texas monument, which was part of a historical display that included 17 monuments and 21 historical markers on the 22-acre Capitol grounds, because it wasn't erected in a prominent location and represented a legitimate tribute to the state's legal and political history.

But the justices ruled Kentucky's framed, enlarged-print lists of the Ten Commandments had a "predominantly religious purpose" - even after officials added framed copies of the Magna Carta, the lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner and a copy of the Declaration of Independence to the display. The court found the display violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

Whether religious displays are allowed to remain in the public square will depend on how well proponents can prove the symbols possess more historical significance than proselytizing power, predicted Francis Manion, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, in an interview before the rulings. His group supports displays of the Ten Commandments.

At least 41 states have displays of the Ten Commandments - basic tenets for the Christian and Jewish religions -- mostly erected on city or county property, according to court documents submitted by the Bush administration. Some monuments have Hollywood roots. To promote the 1956 movie, "The Ten Commandments," starring Charlton Heston, film producer Cecil B. DeMille and the Fraternal Order of Eagles installed hundreds of granite monuments - including the one in Texas -- outside city halls and county courthouses.

Two years ago in Alabama, Roy Moore famously defied a federal court order to remove a stone monument of the Ten Commandments from the state's judicial building in Montgomery, and it cost him his job as chief justice of Alabama's Supreme Court. The monument was uprooted and sent on a countrywide tour of churches and now resides at Moore's home church in Crosspoint, Ala. Moore is considering running for governor against incumbent Gov. Bob Riley (R) in 2006.

Meanwhile, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) signed a new law in April allowing displays of "In God We Trust," the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in public buildings starting July 1. Lawmakers in Indiana, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah also are considering or have considered bills to allow the placement of the Ten Commandments in any public space.

At least 18 states have adopted  laws approving the posting of the motto "In God We Trust" in public buildings and school classrooms.

A survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in August 2004 found that seven out of 10 Americans support displaying the Ten Commandments on public property. The Forum also produced a backgrounder on the legal and historical issues involved in the case. These organizations are projects of the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., which also includes Stateline.org.

In the Kentucky case, McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, the majority opinion said that some displays of the Ten Commandments inside courthouses would be permissible if they're portrayed neutrally and for a secular purpose, such as honoring the nation's legal history. But the justices found the framed copies of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky went too far in endorsing religion.

In contrast, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion in V an Orden v. Perry that the granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol was a legitimate tribute to the state's legal and religious history.

Douglas Laycock, a University of Texas professor who is an expert in church-state law, had urged the Supreme Court in a brief to adopt a "bright line" test for whether a public display has religious significance. Without clear guidance, "We'll be litigating these issues for decades," said Laycock, who opposes displays of the Ten Commandments on public property, after the ruling.

Jeremy Leaming, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also wanted a clearer decision. Leaming said without a court decision that exactly states whether the Ten Commandments can appear on all public property, "You're still going to be stuck with a case-by-case situation, looking at where they are displayed, who displayed them and questions like that."

Defenders argued that displays of the Ten Commandments don't establish religion, just acknowledge the nation's legal heritage. But for some critics, the decision is seen as a part of a campaign to establish the United States as a Christian country. Civil libertarians and some members of minority religions view it as a battle to uphold the separation of church and state.

The Supreme Court has wrestled with the Ten Commandments issue before. In 2002, the high court rejected Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon's appeal to display a 7-foot stone monument of the Ten Commandments at the state Capitol. In 1980, the court ruled that the Ten Commandments could not be displayed in public school classrooms as required by a Kentucky law.

A 1989 ruling upheld the display of a menorah at a local government building because it was part of a larger display of holiday symbols. But the court also prohibited a Nativity scene that stood alone at a courthouse.


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