God goes to court

With demonstrators shouting religious slogans outside, United States Supreme Court justices this week argued and fretted over whether the Ten Commandments displayed on government property cross the line between church and state.

Back-to-back arguments in cases from Texas and Kentucky were the court’s first consideration of the issue since 1980, when justices ruled that the commandments could not be displayed in public schools.

Clearly reluctant to adopt a blanket ban, the current justices wrestled with the role that religious symbols should play in public life.

Several expressed support for a 1,8m granite monument on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol, but were less certain about framed copies of the commandments in two Kentucky courthouses.

“If an atheist walks by, he can avert his eyes,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said in a courtroom filled with spectators, many of whom could be seen glancing at the court’s frieze of Moses carrying the tablets. Banning the Texas display might “show hostility to religion”, he said.

But Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while acknowledging the nation’s religious history, wondered where the line should be drawn. The court ruled in 1983 that legislative prayer is allowable, citing historical significance, but in 1992 said prayer in public schools is not because students may feel pressure to participate.

What if every court had a commandments display over its Bench and opened with a prayer, Ginsburg asked, brushing aside Justice Antonin Scalia’s retort that the justices already open their sessions with “God save this honourable court”.

“We would try and defend that,” said acting solicitor General Paul Clement, who argued on behalf of the Bush administration in supporting the commandments displays.

A pivotal vote in the case is expected to be that of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who in recent years has been at the forefront in outlining constitutional tests based in part on a symbol’s history and “ubiquity”.
She did not tip her hand on Wednesday, if she had one.

“It’s so hard to draw that line” between allowing a legislative prayer and not allowing a Ten Commandments display, O’Connor said.

Monuments carrying the commandments are common in town squares, courthouses and other government-owned land around the country. Lawyers challenging these displays argue that they violate the US Constitution’s First Amendment ban on any law “respecting an establishment of religion”.

While the cases strictly involve Ten Commandments displays, a broad ruling could determine the allowable role of religion in a wide range of public contexts. A decision is expected by late June.

About 100 supporters of the Ten Commandments gathered outside the court, shouting “Amen” and breaking into refrains from the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Several knelt before the court steps.

Opponents of the displays, smaller in number, waved signs reading “Keep government and religion separate” and “My God does not need government help”. — Sapa-AP

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