Supreme Court to consider Ten Commandments case

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

From staff and wire reports

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will consider whether the Ten Commandments may be displayed on government property, ending a 25-year silence on a church-state issue that has prompted bitter legal fights around the country.

Ten Commandments displays are common in town squares and courthouses and on other government-owned land, including the Supreme Court. A wall carving of Moses holding the tablets is in the courtroom where justices will hear arguments in the case.

Courts around the country have splintered over whether the exhibits violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

The disputes have led to emotional battles, such as one in Alabama by Chief Justice Roy Moore, who lost his job after defying a federal order to remove a 5,300-pound monument from the state courthouse. The Supreme Court refused last week to help him get his job back.

But the justices agreed to address the constitutionality of displays in Kentucky and Texas. The case probably will be argued in February with a decision before July.

A granite monument of the Ten Commandments has stood on the grounds of the Missouri Capitol since donated by the state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1958. The monument is located in a discrete corner of a scenic overlook facing the Missouri River. Although the Missouri display has not been a subject of controversy, the court's rulings in the Kentucky and Texas cases could affect whether it remains in place.

"The Lord answers prayers," said former Judge-Executive Jimmie Greene of McCreary County, Ky., which was ordered to remove a display in the hallway of the county courthouse. Greene refused to do the task himself.

"I am a law-abiding citizen, but there is a higher power," Greene said. "I just could not remove that sacred document. Could you think of a better reason to go to jail than standing up in defense of the Ten Commandments?"

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the court should block all government displays of religious documents.

"It's clear that the Ten Commandments is a religious document. Its display is appropriate in houses of worship but not at the seat of government," Lynn said.

The last time the court dealt with the issue was 1980, when justices banned the posting of Ten Commandments in public schools. That case also was from Kentucky.

Mathew Staver of the conservative law group Liberty Counsel, attorney for Kentucky counties in the current case, said the Supreme Court has expected for a long time that a blockbuster religious liberty case would come along.

"It's finally here," Staver said.

Officials in two Kentucky counties -- McCreary and Pulaski -- hung framed copies of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses and added other documents, such as the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence, after the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the display. The ACLU won and county officials are appealing the decision.

David A. Friedman, general counsel for the Kentucky ACLU, said people of different faiths follow different versions of the document. "Especially in a courthouse, people should not be made to feel like outsiders in their own community because they may not share the prevailing religious view," he said.

In the Texas case, a homeless man, Thomas Van Orden, lost his lawsuit to have a 6-foot granite monument removed from the state Capitol grounds. The Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the exhibit to the state in 1961, and it was installed about 75 feet from the Capitol in Austin. The group gave scores of similar monuments to American towns during the 1950s and '60s, and those have been the subjects of multiple court fights.

Religion cases have been difficult for the Supreme Court. In June, the court sidestepped a ruling on the constitutionality of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

"This is an issue that touches deep chords on both sides -- those who believe religious symbols should be part of our government and those who believe the symbols shouldn't be part of our government," said Van Orden's attorney, Erwin Chemerinsky of Duke University.

The Ten Commandments contain both religious and secular directives, including the familiar proscriptions on stealing, killing and adultery. The Bible says God gave the list to Moses.

The court's three most conservative members have made clear that they do not think the bar on state establishment of religion affects local government monuments.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas complained in 2001 when the court refused to rule on the constitutionality of a display in front of the Elkhart, Ind., Municipal Building. They said the city sought to reflect the cultural, historical and legal significance of the commandments.

The court's most liberal justice, John Paul Stevens, disagreed. He wrote that the words "I am the Lord thy God," in the first line of the Indiana monument's inscription are "rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference."

The cases are Van Orden v. Perry, 03-1500, and McCreary County v. ACLU, 03-1693.


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