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Ten Commandments before high court

Explosive church-state issues from Kentucky, Texas

By Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

• Texas case:  Van Orden v. Perry
• Kentucky case:  McCreary County v. ACLUexternal link
Supreme Court
Justice and Rights

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The issue of whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed on government property goes before the Supreme Court Wednesday, in a pair of potentially landmark cases that test religion's cultural and legal status in American society.

The justices will consider whether displaying the commandments represents state endorsement of religion, or simply recognizes and reflects the role that code has played in U.S. moral and legal traditions.

The Decalogue, as it is also known, forms a pillar of belief in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

"These are cases courts like the least; they stir raw emotions," said Charles Haynes, a religious liberty expert at the First Amendment Center. "Whatever they decide will be misunderstood; I don't think any side will be happy with the result. Even the winning side loses because of the deep divisions that will result."

Two cases will be heard, one from Texas, the other from Kentucky. Federal and state courts have been at odds for years over the issue, which gives the high court an opportunity to issue a definitive ruling.

In the Kentucky case, two county executives separately posted copies of the King James version of the Ten Commandments on the walls of their courthouses.

They were displayed among 11 frames of privately donated historical documents and symbols that helped form the basis of American law and government, including the Declaration of Independence. All but the Ten Commandments were secular in nature.

The American Civil Liberties Union objected and won at the federal appeals level. The counties then asked the Supreme Court to intervene.

In Texas, Thomas Van Orden, a self-described "religious pluralist," filed suit against the placement, with private funds, of a 6-foot-tall monument on the grounds of Austin's Capitol Building in 1961. It bears the words "Ten Commandments," a star of David, a symbol representing Christ and the words "I am the Lord thy God."

Van Orden says that, in allowing the monument, Texas crossed the line separating church and state by promoting "personal religious beliefs."

In a brief, he contends many religions reject the idea of a single God who lays down rules for human behavior.

"Even among religions that accept the Ten Commandments, there are significant differences in content of each religion's version of the Ten Commandments, said Van Orden. "The Texas Ten Commandments is virtually identical to the Protestant version."

He lost in a federal appeals court and petitioned to the Supreme Court. Opposing him is Texas governor Rick Perry.

The Bush administration and 26 state attorneys general filed a brief with the court supporting the Texas and Kentucky displays. No states publicly oppose it.

"The First Amendment was never intended to remove all religious expression from the public square," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. "There is no doubt the Ten Commandments are a sacred religious text, but neither can we deny their significant impact on the history, culture and laws of Texas and the rest of the country."

CNN poll: Most questioned show support

Last week, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found 76 percent of those questioned said they support the Ten Commandments being displayed at the Texas Capitol.

Twenty-one percent of those surveyed said they were opposed. The poll had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.5 percentage points.

Within U.S. religious groups, however, there is little consensus.

Few Christian organizations have spoken out. The National Council of Churches said differences within its membership kept the group from taking a position. The Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention have been largely silent.

Orthodox Jewish groups filed a brief with the court supporting the displays in principle. But Reform branch leaders, along with the Anti-Defamation League, oppose it.

Muslim leaders in the United States have issued no statements on the issue.

But public interest groups have weighed in.

"Thou shalt not merge religion and government," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Promoting religion is the job of houses of worship, not government. Our legal system especially must avoid even the appearance of bias on the basis of religion."

The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting the Establishment of Religion." The Supreme Court has long interpreted that to mean government actions must have a secular purpose.

The court has tread carefully on the issue. It ruled in 1980 that the Ten Commandments could not be posted in public school classrooms.

And in October, the justices refused to accept an appeal from former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. He was removed from office in November 2003 after refusing a federal judge's order to remove a 2.6-ton granite monument bearing the Ten Commandments from the state court building.

The pervasiveness of the Ten Commandments is evident in the Supreme Court building itself. Inside the courtroom is a series of marble friezes that include not only Confucius, Mohammed and secular figures associated with law, but Moses holding the tablets, without text. The justices can see them from the bench simply by looking up.

The cases being argued are Van Orden v. Perry (03-1500) and McCreary County, KY et al. v. ACLU (03-1693). Rulings are expected by the end of June.

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