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Commandments in Context

Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page A24

SURPRISINGLY, in just the past few years, the Ten Commandments have become a focal point in the culture war. Demagogues such as former Alabama chief justice Roy S. Moore insist on putting ever more imposing monuments in ever less appropriate settings, while secularists have begun demanding the removal of monuments that few had even noticed before -- let alone been offended by. The extremes of both sides yesterday put the Supreme Court in the unfortunate position of deciding when the state shalt and shalt not display graven images. The answers aren't obvious. Ten Commandments displays patently offend the First Amendment when they put state power behind the promulgation of religious values. But Moses and the tablets appear on the wall of the Supreme Court chamber itself as part of a display of a series of lawgivers, and few object. Context matters.

In one case considered yesterday, two Kentucky counties displayed the commandments in their courthouses, labeling them by resolution "the precedent legal code upon which the civil and criminal codes of the Commonwealth of Kentucky are founded. . . ." In response to legal challenge, the counties added to the display portions of historical U.S. and Kentucky documents that expressed religious themes; they later secularized the display, surrounding the commandments with patriotic and historically important legal texts. Consequently, the court is confronted with a relatively unobjectionable display motivated by a highly objectionable official intent to promote faith.

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The second case concerns a granite monument that has adorned the grounds of the Texas Capitol since 1961. The history of its presence reveals no particular evangelistic purpose; indeed, a driving force behind its gift to Texas by a fraternal organization (and the gift of similar monuments to many other jurisdictions) was film director Cecil B. DeMille, who wanted to promote his movie. The Capitol grounds house 17 other monuments and images from varying religious traditions, including a symbol of Aztec prophecy. It is certainly not true, as Texas contends, that the monument's message is secular. But after four decades of uncontroversial existence, its religiousness seems closer to the "In God We Trust" on American currency than to any improper effort to invest the pulpit with state power. It just isn't a big problem. The challenge for the court will be to acknowledge that common-sense truth without emboldening those who are seeking to impose their religious views on the nation.

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