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Supreme Court split rulings on Ten Commandments leave wake of confusion

 

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court's ambiguous, split decisions on Ten Commandments displays has left everyone from community activists to lawyers grappling over what happens next.

One religious leader sees a legal opening to erect scores of new Ten Commandments monuments across the country while an atheist group says the rulings give it license to push for a monument at the Texas Capitol with "an anti-Bible passage." In a nation with hundreds, if not thousands, of Ten Commandments displays, many agree the rulings give little specific guidance to communities wondering whether they are lawful or unlawful. Since the justices did not establish an overarching principle, battles are likely to persist on a case-by-case, community-by-community basis.

Jonathan Blair/BP

Continuing controversy - Displays of the Ten Commandments likely will remain a heated court issue after two 5-4 rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court June 27. In this photo, a youth looks at the Ten Commandments monument that was at issue in Alabama and led to the ouster of state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore.

 

Confusion in rulings

"It was never clear before what you could and could not do with regard to the Ten Commandments and it's still not clear," said Francis Manion, senior counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian law firm.

On June 27, the high court permitted a decades-old granite monument to the Ten Commandments at the Texas Capitol but declared unconstitutional framed copies of the biblical laws in two Kentucky courthouses. The next day, the high court made several rulings that did little to clarify.

 

Taking steps to move ahead

The court decided to let lower court decisions stand in several cases involving Ten Commandments displays, including two in which the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that both an Ohio judge's courtroom poster and stone monuments placed outside several high schools in Adams County, Ohio, were unconstitutional.

Despite the confusion, some community activists - religious and nonreligious - are taking steps to move ahead.

Patrick Mahoney, director of the Washington-based Christian Defense Coalition, announced plans to try to place displays similar to the monument at the Texas Capitol in 100 cities and towns across the country within the next year. He made the announcement June 27 in Boise, Idaho, where an interfaith community network's efforts to get a monument returned to public property have been boosted by the ruling.

 

More than 70% support

Mahoney hopes to work with Christian lawyers to draft a resolution that can be used nationwide by local residents to request the return or the placement of monuments on public land.

"We felt all along that the public display of Ten Commandments unites communities," he said in an interview. "They don't divide. ... The public realizes that communities are better off when we don't steal, when we don't lie, when we don't kill."

More than seven in 10 Americans polled in August 2004 expressed support for displaying the Ten Commandments, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found. But that means there's still a minority of Americans who aren't thrilled with such monuments.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, will now work with local groups to seek permission to erect a monument in honor of freethinkers on the same Texas Capitol grounds where the Ten Commandments are displayed.

"We can stick our anti-Bible passage up," she said in an interview. "We will plan to fight fire with fire."