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US justices issue mixed rulings on Ten Commandments

June 28, 2005

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A divided U.S. Supreme Court ruledon Monday that putting framed copies of the Ten Commandments incounty courthouses violated church-state separation, but itallowed a commandments monument in a larger display on a stateCapitol grounds.

The two 5-4 rulings on the politically charged issue ofdisplaying the Ten Commandments on government property came ina pair of cases regarded as the most important of the courtterm concerning constitutional separation of church and state.

In one decision, the high court ruled that Kentuckyofficials acted with a “predominantly religious purpose” whenthey posted framed copies of the Ten Commandments on the wallsof courthouses in McCreary and Pulaski counties.

In the other decision, the high court upheld the largegranite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments on theTexas Capitol grounds as part of a display that includednumerous other monuments and statutes.

Part of the distinction between the two rulings turned onthe intent of government officials concerning the displays andwhether they conveyed a mainly religious message.

A number of legal battles have taken place around thecountry in recent years over displays of the Ten Commandmentson government property, dividing the public and producingconflicting rulings by U.S. appeals courts.

The Republican administration of President Bush supportedeach of the latest displays. The Supreme Court last ruled onthe issue in 1980 when it banned the posting of copies of theTen Commandments in public school classrooms.

Justice Stephen Breyer, normally one of the court’s moreliberal members, provided a key swing vote in the two cases,joining the majority to strike down the Kentucky displays andthen joining four of the court’s conservatives to uphold theTexas monument.

RELIGIOUS OBJECTIVES

Breyer said the Texas case differed from the Kentucky onewhere the history of the courthouse displays demonstrated “thesubstantially religious objectives” of those who put them upand that it had this effect on those who viewed them.

The two rulings produced 10 separate opinions that totaledabout 140 pages. Justice Clarence Thomas, who stronglysupported the displays, said the inconsistency between the twodecisions would only compound the confusion over what waspermissible.

In the Kentucky ruling, Justice David Souter said for themajority that state officials were not following the neutralityand church-state separation demanded by the framers of theConstitution.

“This is no time to turn our back on a principle ofneutrality that has served freedom and liberty,” he said fromthe bench in summarizing the ruling for the court majority.

He said the Kentucky displays were different from themarble frieze by the ceiling of the Supreme Court courtroomthat depicts Moses with a tablet representing the TenCommandments. That one included 17 other lawgivers, he said.

Justice Antonin Scalia issued a blistering dissent that wasjoined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Thomasand Anthony Kennedy.

Scalia cited the role of religion in U.S. history. He saidpresidents still conclude the presidential oath with the words”so help me God” and that U.S. coins bear the motto, “In God wetrust.”

In the Texas case, Rehnquist said for the majority that thestate has treated the monuments on the capitol grounds asrepresenting several strands in the state’s political and legalhistory.

Including the Ten Commandments monument has a dualsignificance, partaking of both religion and government, hesaid, adding that it stood among 21 historical markers and 17monuments surrounding the Texas State Capitol.

Reaction to the ruling was split.

“This is a mixed verdict, but on balance it’s a win forseparation of religion and government,” said the Rev. BarryLynn of the group Americans United for Separation of Church andState.

Supporters of the displays emphasized the Texas ruling.

“It is very encouraging that the Supreme Court … moved toprotect thousands of monuments now in place across America,”said Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice. (additional reporting by Deborah Zabarenko)