The Supreme Court ruled Monday that some government-sponsored religious displays are permissible as long as they do not have ``the effect of promoting or endorsing religious beliefs.'' By a 5-to-4 vote, the court said displaying a Christmas nativity scene inside the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh violates constitutionally required separation of church and state because it appears to endorse Christian principles.

But the court unanimously permitted a Hanukkah menorah on the front steps of the City-County Building in Pittsburgh because that display also included a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty, which the court said produced an overall secular purpose.

Justice Harry Blackmun, writing for the court, said today's ruling may help dispel confusion about the issue.

He said these are the guiding principles: ``The government's use of religious symbolism is unconstitutional if it has the effect of endorsing religious beliefs, and the effect of the government's use of religious symbolism depends upon its context.''

In other actions, the court:

Rejected appeals by Hispanics challenging Florida's designation of English as the state's official language.

Without comment, rejected arguments that the government unlawfully tried to silence political extremist Lyndon LaRouche, who was convicted with six others in a scheme to defraud lenders of more than $30 million.

Accepting its first-ever ``right to die'' case, agreed to decide whether a Missouri family may order removal of a life-support system from a woman in a vegetative condition.

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