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Commandments debate spans nation

The Alabama case is only one of many battles being waged in courthouses from Pennsylvania to Washington state over government display of the Ten Commandments. As Kari Huus reports, the verdict remains out.
Pastor Daniel Thompson from El Dorado, Kan., stands in prayer outside the Alabama judicial building Thursday in Montgomery amid crowds gathered in support of Chief Justice Roy Moore.
Pastor Daniel Thompson from El Dorado, Kan., stands in prayer outside the Alabama judicial building Thursday in Montgomery amid crowds gathered in support of Chief Justice Roy Moore.
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In Alabama this week, the drama could hardly be any greater if Moses himself came down the stairs of the court building to argue over display of the Ten Commandments. Presence of the tablets in the judicial building has been championed by the state’s chief justice, and shot down by all his colleagues, with protest gathering on both sides. But this case is only one of many battles waged in courthouses from Pennsylvania to Washington state. And despite appearances in Alabama, the verdict on the issue remains out.

Chief Justice Roy Moore, who placed the 5,300-pound granite monument engraved with the Ten Commandments in the judicial building in July 2001 with a group of supporters, was ordered to have the monument removed after a two-year battle to defend it. In a face-off with the terrestrial law, he refused, saying: “I cannot forsake my conscience.”

But the court viewed the display as an illegal entanglement of government with religion — and Alabama’s other Supreme Court judges agreed, ruling that the tablets must be removed. That, in turn, sparked protest from Christian groups who want to keep it there, and plan to maintain a vigil at the site.

Moore is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case, to make a definitive ruling on the subject. Unless that happens — and it’s unlikely since the court takes just a fraction of the cases that it reviews — the issue is not going away any time soon.

Squaring off
In a dozen cases around the country, well-seasoned combatants have squared off. The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State are among the leaders in the fight against Ten Commandments displays in public sites. They’re pitted against powerful conservative Christian organizations such as Faith and Action and the Christian Defense Coalition.

On both sides, it’s more than a question of stone tablets.

“This is just one battle in a larger conflict over whether the U.S. will be country where all religious traditions are welcome or an exclusionary one where some religious traditions are favored over others,” says Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “This is kind of a political crusade. Leaders of the religious right have made it clear that they would like to see their religious vision written into law.”

Despite their apparent setback in Alabama, advocates for public displays of the Ten Commandments march on.

“We continue to advance the concept that the Ten Commandments are the moral foundation to our civilization, our American culture,” says Rev. Rob Schenck, a missionary to Capitol Hill for Faith and Action. The case in Alabama represents a crisis, he says, and could indicate “we are heading toward a European-like secularization, which I think is a great danger.”

Mixed rulings
At the moment, the battle is tilting toward those who want the Ten Commandments expunged from government sites and schools. Even so, court rulings and public attitudes remain mixed.

In Chester County, Penn., last week, a federal appeals court refused to reconsider a ruling that allowed the Ten Commandments to be displayed on the county courthouse, arguing that the county commissioners were motivated by historic preservation, not trying to advance a religious agenda. The only recourse for appeal for the plaintiff, the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, with counsel from the ACLU, is the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Pittsburgh in late July, a federal judge ruled that a plaque of the Ten Commandments in place outside the Allegheny County Courthouse since 1918 does not violate the constitution, on the grounds that it was part of the area’s cultural heritage.

In some cases, the ruling against a plaque stands, but the enforcement is lacking. In Barrow County, Ga., the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging a wall hanging apparently put up by a citizen at the main entrance of the courthouse laying out Judeo-Christian doctrine. Local press reports say the chairman of the Board of Commissioners has refused to take the hanging down until forced.

A federal court ordered the Adams County/Ohio Valley School District to remove displays of the Ten Commandments from four high schools in June 2002. But this April, the ACLU was still seeking court action to force compliance with the ruling.

Spreading the word
Faith and Action is not just defending the presence of the Ten Commandments in public areas, but actively engaged in seeing that they are displayed. The group presents artfully carved stone tablets to elected and appointed officials, asking them to “display and obey” the rules. They say that their tablets, presented in ceremonies with the recipients, are posted in the offices of some 400 officials on Capitol Hill, including the office of President Bush, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R.-Ill., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D.-Conn.

The organization has found an ally in the current administration, in contrast to the Clinton administration. Conn says President Bill Clinton canceled the ceremony to receive the Ten Commandments from Faith and Action at the last minute and asked that the tablets be delivered instead to the White House mail room.

The organization also encourages churches to present the tablets to local and state officials for display visible to their constituents. Though the organization says it fully endorses the separation of church and state, it interprets that to mean that Congress cannot enact laws instituting a state religion. Having the biblical rules on display is not unconstitutional, says Schenck, but rises above all religious traditions and acts as a “moral preservative.”

Meanwhile, there is no definitive ruling on precisely where and under what conditions display of the Ten Commandments is acceptable. Justice Moore is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

Citing the different conclusions in Alabama and Pennsylvania courts, Schenck says he is hopeful that the highest court will accept the case. “It’s necessary for the Supreme Court to resolve the conflict,” he says. “We will advocate that the Supreme Court needs to rule definitively on the display of Ten Commandments in public places,” he says.

Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State doubts that the Supreme Court would touch the case. “It stands alone because you have a judge who is basically saying he will make his rulings according to his personal religious views. It’s uniquely bad,” he says.

He is optimistic that the Alabama case will sway public opinion. “Because it is so high profile, it’s going to have an impact about the way Americans think about the issue,” he says. “People will see that officials use religious symbols for political advantage.”

A decision on whether the case will go to the Supreme Court is expected in late September or early October.