Thursday, March 03, 2005

Split decision on Ten Commandments

From: Me and AP

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court justices struggled Wednesday to clearly define whether monuments to the Ten Commandments on government property establish an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

Rulings in the two Ten Commandments cases before the court from Texas and Kentucky could decide the shape of church-state relations for decades to come.

The cases are being watched closely in Southern California, where, on Wednesday, Redlands City Clerk Lorrie Poyzer said residents had gathered enough signatures to put before city voters whether to reinstall a Christian cross on the city logo.

Also Wednesday, supporters of a similar effort to return a cross to the Los Angeles County logo conceded defeat.

If the high court rules governments can display the Ten Commandments, Redlands voters would support the cross initiative because they won't fear the city being sued, said Scott Siegel, the resident who led the petition drive.

"I see the Supreme Court ... making it very clear this nation is allowed to have religious symbols on display,' said Siegel, noting the country's founding as a religious refuge.

A decision probably issued by the end of June could significantly raise or lower the wall separating government and religion. In doing so, the justices could clarify decades of confusing, muddled jurisprudence on what constitutes government endorsement of religion.

"What the court will probably say is: 'Context is everything,'' said Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Washington, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief challenging the constitutionality of the cases.

In the Texas case, a homeless man filed suit challenging the constitutionality of a 6-foot by 3-foot monument in the shape of two tablets, inscribed with the Ten Commandments, two Stars of David and other symbols.

The 43-year-old granite monument one of 38 on the Texas Capitol grounds in Austin was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The tablets are located roughly 75 feet from the Capitol building and 123 feet from the state Supreme Court.

Opponents say that because the monument is on the Capitol grounds under the authority of the Texas Legislature, it constitutes government endorsement of Christianity and in particular Protestant faiths, from which the display's Ten Commandments text is derived.

"Here you have a monument that claims not only is there a God, but God has dictated 10 rules for behavior,' said former USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, an attorney for the Texas man who wants the tablet removed. "Imagine the Buddhist or Muslim who walks into the Supreme Court. He will realize this is not his government.'

But lawyers supporting the monument and other similar displays argued that the Ten Commandments are a historically recognized symbol of law. And they noted that in a 1983 case, the Supreme Court found it was constitutional for a state legislature to begin its session with prayer.

"I don't see why one is good and the other is bad,' said Justice Antonin Scalia.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, often a swing vote when the justices are closely divided, questioned how appropriate it would be if "the legislature itself wants to have the Ten Commandments displayed in its legislative halls.'

When Chemerinsky said that would be unconstitutional, O'Connor complained "it's so hard to draw that line.'

If legislatures can open their sessions with prayers, O'Connor wondered how displaying the Ten Commandments in the same hall could be unconstitutional.

The Kentucky case involves the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays in two county courthouses. The displays have been modified twice in response to lower court rulings against the exhibits.

The first ones consisted of a framed copy of the Ten Commandments. In its current version, the Ten Commandments are surrounded by historic American and British political and patriotic documents. A description in the final displays asserts the exhibits are of "documents that played a significant role in the foundation of our system of law and government.'

Opponents of the Kentucky exhibits argue county officials clearly had a religious purpose in posting the Ten Commandments and that the subsequent modifications were little more than a "sham' designed to insulate the displays from scrutiny.

Justice David Souter said it seemed clear the displays were religious in nature.

"There's no reason the intent of this display has changed as the context has changed,' Souter said.

But supporters argue the court should not give too much weight to the original intent of county officials in erecting the displays.

Kentucky authorities were only trying "to do the best they could' to follow previous court decisions, said Mathew Staver, who represented the Kentucky counties. "They have got to be able to adjust their missteps whenever they step on a constitutional land mine that is blurry and confusing.'

Acting Solicitor General Paul Clement, who represented the Bush administration in defending the Texas and Kentucky displays, said "municipalities should be rewarded, not punished, for trying to change the context to try and get it right.'

During the arguments Wednesday, justices appeared to struggle with how to judge the Texas and Kentucky displays and whether a single test could be constructed to decide when government-sponsored religious exhibits or actions run afoul of the Constitution.

Justice Stephen Breyer doubted the high court could fashion a one-size-fits-all solution.

"We are a religious nation,' Breyer said. "I think the only way to do it is to look at the divisive quality of the display on a case-by-case basis.'

Even as justices weighed the issue, they noted that religious symbols are displayed throughout the Supreme Court building. Above the dais, a large frieze depicts Moses holding the Ten Commandments without text displayed. Other historic lawgivers including Chinese philosopher Confucius, Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus and former Chief Justice John Marshall also are depicted on the panel.

Supreme Court sessions also open with a clerk proclaiming: 'God save the United States and this honorable court.'