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Supreme Court considers constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court is considering whether Ten Commandments displays on government property unconstitutionally entangle church and state, a cultural battle that has splintered lower courts for more than two decades.

Justices were hearing arguments today in two cases involving displays in Texas and Kentucky. It is the first time since 1980 the high court is tackling the emotional issue, in a courtroom boasting a wall carving of Moses holding the sacred tablets.

Ten Commandments monuments are common in town squares, courthouses and other government-owned land around the country. At issue is whether they violate the First Amendment ban on any law "respecting an establishment of religion," or simply represent a secular tribute to America's legal heritage.

The question has sparked dozens of heated legal battles, including one in Alabama by Roy Moore. He lost his job as chief justice a year ago after defying a federal order to remove a 5,300-pound Ten Commandments monument he had installed in the state courthouse.

About two dozen demonstrators gathered in front of the Supreme Court in the icy cold for rallies following a candlelight vigil by supporters of the displays.

"I don't think government should be in the business of morality," said David Condo, 40, of Beltsville, Md., as protesters wrapped in parkas, scarves and ear muffs marched nearby. "I'd rather brave the elements on a cold morning than start on a slippery slope to theocracy."

Another demonstrator, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, said most Americans support public display of the Ten Commandments.

"The court should be very careful to respect the viewpoint of the overwhelming majority of the American people," said Mahoney. "The Ten Commandments do not divide Americans; they unite Americans."

More than 50 groups have filed "friend-of-the-court" briefs weighing in on the issue.

While the cases strictly involve Ten Commandments displays, a broad ruling could define the proper place of religion in public life - from use of religious music in a school concert to students' recitation of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. A decision is expected by late June.

The Bush administration, which sided with a California school district last year to keep "God" in the Pledge, is now joining Texas and Kentucky officials to back the Ten Commandments displays.

"Countless monuments, medallions, plaques, sculptures, seals, frescoes, and friezes _ including, of course, the Supreme Court's own courtroom frieze - commemorate the Decalogue. Nothing in the Constitution requires these historic artifacts to be chiseled away or erased," writes Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in his court filing.

Erwin Chemerinsky, representing a homeless man suing to have the Texas display removed, countered: "The government's symbolic endorsement of religion is most obvious from the content of the monument itself. In large letters, the monument proclaims 'I AM the LORD thy God.'"

Ten Commandments displays are supported by a majority of Americans, according to an AP-Ipsos poll. The poll taken in late February found that 76 percent support it and 23 percent oppose it.

In the Texas case, Thomas Van Orden lost his lawsuit to have a 6-foot granite monument removed from the state Capitol grounds.

The Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the exhibit to the state in 1961, and it was installed about 75 feet from the Capitol in Austin. The group gave thousands of similar monuments to American towns during the 1950s and '60s, and those have been the subject of multiple court fights.

Two Kentucky counties, meanwhile, hung framed copies of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses and added other documents, such as the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence, after the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the display.

While one lower court found the Texas display to be predominantly nonreligious because it was one of 17 monuments in a 22-acre park, another court struck down the Kentucky displays as lacking a "secular purpose." Kentucky's modification of the display was a "sham" for the religious intent behind it, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The last time the Supreme Court weighed in on the issue was 1980, when it struck down a Kentucky law requiring Ten Commandments displays in public classrooms. Since then, more than two dozen courts have ruled in conflicting ways on displays in various public contexts.