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Supreme Court refuses to clear up confusion over Ten Commandments display

By The Associated Press


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WASHINGTON — Courts across America have reached different conclusions in emotional Ten Commandments cases, some allowing government displays of the biblical list, others barring such postings.

Only the Supreme Court can resolve the question, and it chose yesterday to steer clear for now.

The court quietly turned away an appeal from Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon, who wanted permission to place a 7-foot stone monument on the grounds of the state Capitol.

The court's action was a defeat for Indiana and other states that sought the high court's endorsement for the notion that the Ten Commandments are as much emblems of legal tradition as they are biblical teachings.

"To just cavalierly dismiss (the case) is to put aside what is becoming a very large, growing concern on the part of millions of Americans," said Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister whose Ten Commandments Project supports the list's display.

"People are petty for attacking the Ten Commandments, and it should not be sanctioned by the United States Supreme Court," Schenck said.

In North Dakota, legislators last year approved a measure allowing schools to post the Ten Commandments as part of a larger display of religious and historical documents.

A monument of the Ten Commandments in Fargo drew threats of a lawsuit to try to get it removed. But the group seeking to remove it, the Red River Freethinkers, postponed that effort after the September terrorist attacks. Members said they worried it could lead to a backlash against Muslims.

The Indiana case presented an opportunity for a broad ruling on government display of the Ten Commandments, whether outdoors on monuments or indoors in courtrooms or other civic spaces.

Instead, the hodgepodge of conflicting court rulings will continue at least until the next time the court faces a similar appeal.

Monuments such as Indiana's are forbidden in that state along with Illinois and Wisconsin, but allowed in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Under a 1994 federal appeals court ruling, plaques bearing the Ten Commandments may not be displayed in courthouses in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. In recent years state and federal courts have also struck down display of similar plaques in South Carolina and Kentucky.

To add to the confusion, some monuments or plaques remain in jurisdictions that theoretically prohibit them. In Alabama, opponents claim the state's chief justice flouted a federal appeals court ruling by installing a 5,280-pound depiction of the Ten Commandments in the state Supreme Court rotunda.

"All Americans should feel welcome when they walk into a city hall, a courthouse or a public school," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"The posting of religious symbols there says some religious groups are better than others."

Nine states joined in a friend-of-the-court brief asking the high court to hear the Indiana case. The law is unclear, making it difficult for state legislatures to know what to do, attorneys general in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah and Virginia wrote.

"The importance of the issue in this case goes beyond simply whether government may display the Ten Commandments on a monument on public property," the states wrote. "The larger issue is the extent to which government may acknowledge and accommodate religion as being an important part of our nation's heritage."

The Ten Commandments contain both religious and secular directives, including the familiar proscriptions against stealing, killing and adultery. The Bible says God gave the list to Moses. The Constitution bars government promotion of religion but protects the individual's freedom to worship as he or she pleases.

Last May, the court divided bitterly in turning away a separate case involving display of a Ten Commandments monument outside a civic building.

The court's three most conservative members took the rare step of announcing that they would have agreed to hear that case, prompting an angry rejoinder from one of the most liberal justices.

The monument "simply reflects the Ten Commandments' role in the development of our legal system," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for himself and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

The words "I am the Lord thy God," in the first line of the monument's inscription are "rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference," Justice John Paul Stevens replied.

In O'Bannon v. Indiana Civil Liberties Union, the governor wanted the donated monument to replace one defaced by a vandal. The Indiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued, and lower federal courts blocked the installation on grounds that it promoted a religious purpose.


2001-2002 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of the 2001-2002 U.S. Supreme Court term.  11.01.01

Ten Commandments monument can stay on Texas Capitol grounds
Federal judge says 5-foot stone slab bearing biblical codes doesn't violate church-state separation.  10.07.02

ACLU sues Tennessee county over commandments displays
State director says group filed lawsuit 'to ensure that individuals have the right to decide for themselves whether to practice a particular religious faith.'  02.02.02

Ten Commandments plaque ordered out of Pennsylvania courthouse
Meanwhile, Nebraska city officials say they'll appeal decision that monument must be removed from city park.  03.07.02

Teen asks Tennessee county to display Islamic pillars
Bradley County Commission, which recently voted to allow posting of Ten Commandments, has refused to consider request.  04.02.02

Alabama House panel backs Ten Commandments amendment
Proposal would allow religious codes to be displayed on state property, including in schools.  01.27.02

State attorney general calls Ten Commandments displays unconstitutional
Opinion comes amid push to have all 95 Tennessee counties adopt resolutions in favor of posting religious codes in government buildings.  04.05.02

'Ten Commandments judge' says monument doesn't endorse religion
Roy Moore's attorneys say challenges to 5,280-pound display erroneously equate public acknowledgment of God with religious promotion.  01.10.02

Maryland teen questions commandments monument in city park
Student's letter prompts debate over whether Frederick officials should remove stone tablet.  05.16.02

High court refuses to hear dispute over Ten Commandments display
Three justices issue statement explaining why they wanted to consider Indiana case, while another justice releases note opposing dissenters.  05.29.01

Push for Ten Commandments displays gains momentum in South
Supporters see effort as way of encouraging morality, but civil libertarians view campaign as affront to nation's fundamental principles.  04.12.02

Conflicting rulings on Commandments keep controversy simmering
Analysis Supporters of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore say it's time U.S. Supreme Court cleared up issue once and for all — using his case.  11.27.02