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Supreme Court splits on Ten Commandments

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 28, 2005


In a major showdown over the presentation of religious symbols and sacred text on public property, the US Supreme Court has made it somewhat easier for government officials to justify displays like the Ten Commandments.

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But at the same time, the nation's highest court put officials on notice that their motives must be clearly secular for such displays to pass constitutional muster.

In two important church-state rulings announced Monday, the high court upheld a Ten Commandments display in Texas, but struck down one in Kentucky.

The rulings came on a busy final day of the US Supreme Court's 2004-2005 term that included no announced retirement by any justice. Many analysts say an announcement could come at any time.

In one Ten Commandments case the court said an outdoor public presentation of the Decalogue among other monuments on the Texas State Capitol grounds in Austin did not amount to an unconstitutional government promotion of religion.

The majority justices said that while the Texas display was an acknowledgment of a sacred religious text by the government, the public exhibit did not cross the line into impermissible proselytizing. The vote in the Texas case was 5 to 4.

Setting the stage for church-state litigation

But the high court reached a different conclusion in a Kentucky case involving a Ten Commandments display on the wall of two county courthouses.

The justices ruled 5 to 4 that public officials were not motivated by a necessary secular purpose in ordering the courthouse display. Instead the majority ruled that government officials in the Kentucky case had acted in a way that sought to advance religion in violation of the separation of church and state.

The swing vote determining the outcome in both cases was Justice Stephen Breyer.

In a concurring opinion in the Texas case, Justice Breyer illustrated how close that case was for him. "The circumstances surrounding the monument's placement on the capitol grounds and its physical setting provide a strong, but not conclusive, indication that the Commandments' text as used on this monument conveys a predominantly secular message," he says.

"The determinative factor here, however, is that 40 years passed in which the monument's presence, legally speaking, went unchallenged," Breyer writes. "Those 40 years suggest more strongly than can any set of formulaic tests that few individuals ... are likely to have understood the monument as amounting ... to a government effort to establish religion."

The First Amendment's establishment clause bars the government from taking actions that promote or endorse religion or a particular religious faith.

Some legal scholars hold the view that the establishment clause requires a strict separation between church and state. They say religion is best protected by minimizing potential government entanglements. Others say strict enforcement of separation can force government into a posture of hostility toward religion and the religious.

The high court has carved out a middle position in this ongoing and increasingly heated debate.

Nonetheless, analysts say the two decisions and the sharp split within the court set the stage for more church-state litigation with increasing focus on the context and history of the display. But ultimately the decisions may provide a road map for officials seeking to defend such displays.

"It leaves us litigating each and every one of these cases individually," says Douglas Laycock, a church-state expert and law professor at the University of Texas Law School. "Everyone can manipulate the facts," he says. "The lesson for state governments is, disguise your purpose."