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Monday, June 27, 2005  

Law: Decisions erode barrier between church and state

The Supreme Court of the United States has issued two rulings that erode the barrier between church and state. Though I try not to read politics into court decisions, but instead interpret them based on the constitution, statutes and case law, I do see overt political maneuvering in regard to these decisions. The religious Right has been involved in a crusade to impose versions of the Ten Commandments on government property for nearly a decade. Its most famous battle involved the installment of a monolithic granite sculpture of the Biblical document in the Alabama justice building in 2003. Though former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore ultimately lost that fight in federal court, his supporters and other evangelical Christians did not give up. I believe the pressure they have brought influenced the Supreme Court.

The Kansas City Star reports.

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that displaying the Ten Commandments on government property is constitutionally permissible in some cases but not in others. A pair of 5-4 decisions left future disputes on the contentious church-state issue to be settled case-by-case.

"The court has found no single mechanical formula that can accurately draw the constitutional line in every case," wrote Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

Breyer was the only justice to vote with the majority in both cases: One that struck down Ten Commandments displays inside two Kentucky courthouses and a second that allowed a 6-foot granite monument to remain on the grounds of the Texas Capitol.

The court said the key to whether a display is constitutional hinges on whether there is a religious purpose behind it. But the justices acknowledged that question would often be controversial.

It is already clear that the standard SCOTUS set will be unworkable much of the time. That is because groups and politicians wishing to place religious symbols on public property will use pretexts to do so. Indeed, throughout the country, the favored pretext has become a claim that the religious symbols are merely parts of historical displays. In reality, there usually was no historical display before the desire to place the religious emblems on government property arose. Then, a few pieces of memorabilia were located to display with the religious material in order to justify the display. However, the focus remains on the real message, and, that message is religious.

The display the high court approved of is troubling partly because of its site. A religious display in a seat of government can't help but suggest the government itself is approving of religion, eroding the Establishment Clause. Allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed on the grounds of the Texas capitol is very close to allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed in government buildings, including courthouses, in Kentucky or elsewhere.

The close votes in these cases mean this area of constitutional law will be revisited by SCOTUS. However, unless the justices hearing future cases both resist political pressure, and, think more clearly about how the current standard can be abused, the erosion of the constitutional barrier between church and state will continue.

Reasonably related

The cases are McCreary County v. ACLU, 03-1693, and Van Orden v. Perry, 03-1500.

7:15 PM