Ten Commandment challenges spread
Disputes have arisen in 14 states. Many rulings go against the displays.
Some 3,300 years after Moses descended from Mount Sinai, a debate over the Ten Commandments is raging in towns and cities across America.Skip to next paragraph
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From Cambridge, Mass., to Montgomery, Ala., to Everett, Wash., state and local officials are scrambling to defend the placement of the Ten Commandments in government buildings or on public land.
In some cases, monuments and plaques depicting the Ten Commandments have been on display for decades. But now their placement on government property is increasingly being challenged by groups who say such displays violate the US Constitution's mandated separation between church and state. "The rulings are now mostly against the Ten Commandments. The tide has turned," says Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis.
The disputes are part of a larger national debate over how much entanglement of religion and government the Constitution permits, including questions about the inclusion of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
"This is a culture war," says Edward White, a lawyer with the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. "You have certain groups who are trying to secularize this country and stamp out every image of our Judeo-Christian heritage. The fight is being fought everywhere."
The most closely watched dispute is unfolding in Alabama, where the state's chief justice, Roy Moore, installed a 2-1/2-ton stone monument of the Decalogue in the rotunda of the justice building two years ago. A federal judge and a federal appeals-court panel have both ruled that the display amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the government.
Chief Justice Moore has been ordered to remove the display within the next two weeks. Moore's supporters are warning that they are prepared to engage in civil disobedience to prevent the removal.
Although it has received the lion's share of press coverage, the Montgomery dispute is just one of numerous Ten Commandments cases. Similar disputes are under way in Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. Many receive only local press coverage.
Rob Schenck of the National Clergy Council says the legal skirmishes are taking a toll on the nation. "The Ten Commandments are of paramount moral importance to our culture and our government. They are the rudimentary expression of right and wrong," he says. "Every time a court rules against the display of the Commandments, there is an erosion of respect for the principles espoused in the Commandments."
Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has a different view. "Religious and moral codes should be promoted by religious organizations, not by government," he says. "Just as you wouldn't want to see a giant cross on the Capitol building, you shouldn't create the impression that the government favors certain beliefs over others."
It remains unclear whether the US Supreme Court will enter the fray. Moore of Alabama says he will appeal his case to the nation's highest court. But the justices have declined three times during the past three terms to take up a Ten Commandments case.