Court to take up three cases on religious liberty

The US Supreme Court will once again explore the bounds of the separation of church and state, agreeing Tuesday to take up three key cases involving religious liberty.

The justices announced they will hear two cases challenging the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property. Opponents of the postings say they amount to an impermissible attempt by government to favor religion over nonreligion. Supporters say the Commandments are a fundamental source of US law and should be no more constitutionally suspect than the motto on American coins, "In God We Trust."

One case involves a six-foot monument on display on the Texas state Capitol grounds. The second case examines efforts by officials in Kentucky's McCreary and Pulaski counties to display framed copies of the Commandments in courthouses.

There are some 4,000 Ten Commandment monuments scattered across the country. Most were donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the 1950s and 1960s. But there are also plaques and other displays on public sites and in government buildings. In recent years, Ten Commandments displays have become the source of a growing number of lawsuits filed by atheists and others favoring strict separation between church and state.

The Supreme Court has said such displays are permissible if they are part of a larger presentation that is not primarily religious in content. But appeals courts have applied the precedent in different ways, creating a patchwork of different judicial approaches to the issue.

The third case accepted by the justices Tuesday is a challenge to a federal law that protects the rights of prison inmates to practice their religion without undue government interference. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000 says in part that no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of anyone confined to a government institution. The law allows authorities to interfere only if they can show a "compelling governmental interest."

A group of inmates in Ohio - including a Wiccan witch, a Satanist, and a white supremacist - used the law to challenge prison policies that they say denied them access to religious literature and ceremonial items. Prison officials say certain religious activities undermine their ability to maintain order within the prison system by facilitating gang activities.

Ohio officials challenged the constitutionality of the 2000 law, arguing that it violated the First Amendment's mandated separation of church and state. They also argued that the law exceeded Congress's powers.

The Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati agreed with the Ohio officials, striking down the law because the court said it had "the effect of impermissibly advancing religion by giving greater protection to religious rights than to other constitutionally protected rights."

"The primary effect of RLUIPA is not simply to accommodate the exercise of religion by individual prisoners, but to advance religion generally by giving religious prisoners rights superior to those of nonreligious prisoners," the Sixth Circuit said. The appeals court said the law is unconstitutional because it creates an incentive for prisoners to become religious in order to enjoy greater rights.

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