updated 10/12/2004 8:07:32 PM ET 2004-10-13T00:07:32

The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will take up the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays on government land and buildings, a surprise announcement that puts justices in the middle of a politically sensitive issue.

Justices have repeatedly refused to revisit issues raised by their 1980 decision that banned the posting of copies of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms.

In the meantime, lower courts have reached a hodgepodge of conflicting rulings that allow displays in some instances but not in others.

Kentucky, Texas cases accepted
The high court will hear an appeal early next year involving displays in Kentucky and Texas.

In the Texas case, the justices will decide if a Ten Commandments monument on the state Capitol grounds is an unconstitutional attempt to establish state-sponsored religion.

Road map to the Supreme CourtA homeless man, Thomas Van Orden, lost his lawsuit to have the 6-foot tall red granite removed. The Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the monument to the state in 1961. The group gave scores of similar monuments to American towns during the 1950s and '60s, and those have been the subject of multiple court fights.

Separately, they will consider whether a lower court wrongly barred the posting of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses.

McCreary and Pulaski county officials hung framed copies of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses and later added other documents, such as the Magna Charter and Declaration of Independence, after the display was challenged.

Last week, the justices rejected an appeal from a high-profile crusader for Ten Commandment monuments, ousted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who lost his job after defying a federal order to dismantle a Ten Commandments monument.

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

The Constitution bars any state "establishment" of religion. That means the government cannot promote religion in general, or favor one faith over another.

The lawyer for the Kentucky counties, Mathew Staver of the conservative law group Liberty Counsel, told justices that lower courts are fractured on the issue. A divided appeals court panel sided with the American Civil Liberties Union in the Kentucky case.

In the past decade, justices have refused to get involved in Ten Commandments disputes from around the country. Three conservative justices complained in 2001, when the court declined to rule on the constitutionality of a Ten Commandments display in front of the Elkhart, Ind., Municipal Building.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, said the city sought to reflect the cultural, historical and legal significance of the commandments. Rehnquist noted that justices’ own chambers includes a carving of Moses holding the Ten Commandments.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said Tuesday that he hopes the court uses the cases to declare government displays of religious documents and symbols unconstitutional.

“It’s clear that the Ten Commandments is a religious document. Its display is appropriate in houses of worship but not at the seat of government,” Lynn said.

Other action
In other action Tuesday, the court:

  • Said it would consider the constitutionality of a federal law that requires state prisons to accommodate inmate religions, from Christianity to Satanism. The case does not question inmates’ right to practice their religion, but asks whether states have to accommodate requests for a particular diet, special haircut or religious symbols.
  • Declined to decide whether the Pentagon is constitutionally obligated to give news media access to U.S. troops during combat. The court, without comment, rejected the appeal by Larry Flynt, the self-described smut peddler who publishes Hustler magazine. He was challenging a lower ruling earlier this year that the First Amendment does not shield journalists from government interference in gathering news from the battlefield.
  • Sidestepped a dispute over whether Internet providers can be forced to identify subscribers illegally swapping music and movies online. The recording industry had sought court intervention, arguing that more than 2.6 billion music files are illegally downloaded each month and that the law is needed to identify culprits. The Bush administration agrees with recording and movie companies but had encouraged the Supreme Court to wait to settle the issue.
  • Agreed to decide whether Hawaii went too far to keep gasoline affordable for residents when it imposed rent caps on dealer-run stations. Lower courts said the 1997 law, intended to protect independent dealers and promote competition, was unconstitutional. The case to be argued early next year will set guidelines for other states. Nineteen states and many city and legislative leaders had urged the Supreme Court to hear Hawaii’s appeal, arguing that their own regulations of various types could be affected.
  • Declined to hear a trio of cases seeking to reinstate federal regulations that would force regional phone carriers to share their networks with competitors at discounted rates. The court, without comment, let stand a lower ruling that the Federal Communications Commission had failed to adequately justify the need for the rules. Tuesday’s decision now forces the FCC to quickly come up with new rules, a process the agency began over the summer.
  • Refused to step into a dispute over whether a restaurant chain must pay its employees for unused vacation time if they quit or are fired within a year. The court, without comment, rejected the attempt by Denny’s Inc. to stop a lawsuit in California state court over its vacation plan, which says hourly employees can’t be compensated for accrued vacation days until completing one year of service.
  • Agreed to consider whether family members can sue in federal court after a 14-year-old girl cut her finger on a Star-Kist tuna can and suffered permanent damage. The case raises a technical issue over the family’s access to federal courts if their alleged harm does not amount to at least $75,000 — the minimum required under U.S. law — but the girl’s separate lawsuit alleging physical damages and pain and suffering does.

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