Some 3,300 years after Moses descended from Mount Sinai, a debate over the Ten Commandments is raging in towns and cities across America.
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.
Last April, the justices let stand a decision barring the display of the Ten Commandments outside Kentucky's State Capitol. A year earlier, the justices refused to take up an appeal involving a similar display ordered removed from Indiana's State House lawn.
In 2001, the justices declined to consider whether a Ten Commandments monument outside the municipal building in Elkhart, Ind., was unconstitutional. It had been on display in that location since 1958.
In an unusual move, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, issued a written dissent to the court's decision not to consider the Elkhart case. "The city is not bound to display only symbols that are wholly secular, or to convey solely secular messages," the chief justice wrote. "The fact that the monument conveys some religious meaning does not cast doubt on the city's valid secular purposes for its display."
Chief Justice Rehnquist said the Ten Commandments display "is part of the city's celebration of its cultural and historical roots, not a promotion of religious faith."
Justice John Paul Stevens disagreed. In a statement supporting the court's action in refusing to hear the case, he said the first two lines of the monument are presented in larger type and include the statement: "I am the Lord thy God."
"The graphic emphasis placed on those first lines is rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference," he wrote.
Although the general trend among judges has been to rule against Ten Commandments displays, not all judges are striking them down. A federal appeals court in Philadelphia in late June upheld a Ten Commandments display on a 1920 bronze plaque at the Chester County Courthouse in Pennsylvania.
"The age and history of the plaque provide a context which changes the effect of an otherwise religious plaque," the panel ruled.
Last Monday, a federal judge in Pittsburgh adopted the same reasoning, ruling that a Ten Commandments plaque - installed in 1918 - could remain on display at the Allegheny County Courthouse.
In contrast, in mid-July a federal judge in La Crosse, Wis., ordered the city to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a city park because, she said, it made some community members "feel they were not welcome, that they did not belong in La Crosse unless they followed Judeo-Christian traditions." The monument had been there since 1965.
"The First Amendment guarantees persons of all faiths that the government will treat them with equal concern and respect," wrote US District Judge Barbara Crabb.
Many of the battles over the Ten Commandments never make it to court. The City of Milwaukee, Rehnquist's hometown, agreed to remove a Ten Commandments monument from public property after the Supreme Court declined to take up the Elkhart case.
Two weeks ago, local officials voted 8 to 0 to remove a Ten Commandments monument from outside the Wyandotte County Courthouse in Kansas. It is slated to move across the street to the grounds of a church.