updated 11/3/2003 5:34:51 AM ET 2003-11-03T10:34:51

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to intervene in a long-running dispute over a public monument depicting the Ten Commandments that led to the suspension of the state of Alabama’s chief justice.

LOWER FEDERAL COURTS ruled Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore violated the Constitution’s ban on government promotion of religion by placing the 5,300-pound granite monument in the rotunda of the state Judicial Building. In two appeals to the Supreme Court, Moore argued that lower federal courts do not have authority over a state’s chief justice.

Moore was suspended as chief justice for defying a federal court order to remove the monument. He goes on trial before the Alabama Court of the Judiciary on Nov. 12 on face judicial ethics charges for his refusal to comply with the order.

Despite his refusal to comply with the order, the monument was wheeled to an out-of-the-way storage room in August. Two weeks of protests by Moore’s supporters followed. In recent weeks, demonstrators have carried the cause to the sidewalk outside the Supreme Court, with one protester dressed as Moses and carrying cardboard tablets.

The Supreme Court’s order is not a ruling on the thorny question of whether the Ten Commandments may be displayed in government buildings or in the public square. It merely reflects the high court’s unwillingness to hear the appeal.

LOWER COURTS DIVIDED

Lower courts have splintered on the issue, allowing depictions of the Ten Commandments in some instances and not in others.

Moore challenged the high court to settle the question once and for all, and accused the justices of ducking their responsibility to clarify murky questions about the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

The Supreme Court recently took on another divisive case about government and religion. Sometime next year, the justices will hear the case of a California atheist who objects to the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Constitution sets out no absolute divide between God and government, and Moore argued that his Ten Commandments display was in keeping with the religious vision of the nation’s founders.

The First Amendment guarantees that government will not actively endorse religion in general or favor one faith over another. The same amendment also guarantees an individual’s right to worship as he or she pleases.

The Ten Commandments contain both religious and secular directives, including the familiar bans on stealing, killing and adultery. The Bible says God gave the list to Moses.

BITTERLY DIVIDED

Two years ago, the high court divided bitterly over whether to hear another case testing whether a different Ten Commandments monument could be displayed outside a civic building.

The court opted at that time not to hear that case, but four justices nonetheless staked out a position on the issue.

The three most conservative justices said they found nothing wrong with display of that monument outside the building housing local courts and prosecutors, city leaders in Elkhart, Ind. The setting reflected the cultural, historical and legal significance of the commandments, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for himself and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

The monument “simply reflects the Ten Commandments’ role in the development of our legal system,” Rehnquist wrote for the three.

He noted that “a carving of Moses holding the Ten Commandments, surrounded by representations of other historical legal figures, adorns the frieze on the south wall of our courtroom.”

At the opposite ideological end of the court, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the words “I am the Lord thy God,” in the first line of the Elkhart monument’s inscription are “rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference,” Stevens wrote then.

In the Alabama case, lower federal courts ruled that Moore violated the Constitution’s ban on government promotion of religion by placing the 5,300-pound granite monument in the rotunda of the state Judicial Building.

In two appeals to the Supreme Court, Moore argued that lower federal courts do not have authority over a state’s chief justice.

Lawyers for Moore’s legal opponents did not file any response to his appeals.

The case is Moore v. Glassroth 03-468.

OTHER ACTIONS

In other actions on Monday, the court:

Said it will settle a fight over patients’ legal rights when their HMOs refuse to pay for recommended medical treatment.

The case involves an issue that has stymied Congress, which has tried and failed to pass national patients’ rights legislation. Some states have their own laws, but the question of where patients can sue and what they can ask for in court still is unresolved.

The court’s answer could determine whether patients can win large amounts of money if insurers refuse to pay for beneficial or even lifesaving treatment. If the court sides with insurers, it would mean that state courts, and the potential they offer for big damage awards from juries, would be off limits for most negligence or malpractice suits against HMOs.

Refused to block a lawsuit over a magazine’s critical safety reports about the Suzuki Samurai, a defeat for news organizations that wanted the court to clarify protections for journalists who warn about dangers from products.

The court declined without comment to consider whether the lawsuit against the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine should be stopped. The magazine had labeled the Samurai unacceptable in 1988 because of potential rollovers.

Said it will use a dispute over wilderness areas to decide what legal rights people have when they’re angered by government action - or inaction.

The case puts the justices in the middle of a fight between environmentalists and the Bush administration over allowing off-road vehicles in wilderness study areas.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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