But perhaps the most common explanation heard from people who participated in the Cumberland protests was that the removal of the engraving signified another assault by a secular society on religion, Christianity in particular. It was no different, as they see it, than prohibiting children from singing "Silent Night" in public schools -- as happened recently in Maplewood, N.J. -- or forbidding a church's religious float in a holiday parade, as happened in Denver.
"Jesus is being moved right out," Yost said in a sermon at the Cumberland Community Church before Christmas that warned about the holiday's increasingly secular tone. "God's being moved out."
The protest by Edward Taylor Jr., the Rev. Ronald Yost and others over removal of the monument, on display in Cumberland, Md., since 1957, prompted its return.
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Nearly two years ago, Yost founded the church on the idea of breaking with stuffy traditions. He dresses for church no more formally than his congregation of 140 people, who arrive in blue jeans, sweaters and even camouflage caps.
But Yost also believes that there are traditions worth saving and that they are under siege from the very same popular culture that has made casual attire a necessity. "The world thinks it's a bad thing to say 'Merry Christmas,' " he said.
Despite the reelection of a Christian president who believes that religion should play an important role in the public sphere, that feeling of retreat is pervasive in this blue-collar community.
"I see a moral decay in our culture, and I see we're becoming more secular. We're becoming like Europe: Their belief is no belief," said the Rev. Mickey Stephens, pastor of the nondenominational Grace Memorial Community Church in Cumberland. "They don't mind if you worship the devil. Just don't worship Christ."
In Stephens's view, placing the Ten Commandments outside the courthouse is an affirmation of the stark differences between right and wrong. "It's cut and dried; it's black and white. It's right there, and there's no way around it," he said.
Removing the monument represents society's willingness to fudge things, Stephens said, to suggest that right and wrong are more subjective.
Allegany County's three commissioners directed staff members to relocate the Ten Commandments display from the courthouse grounds in the hope of avoiding a possible lawsuit after a doctor complained about religious display on public property. There was no formal meeting or debate.
After protests formed, the commissioners reversed course and ordered the 1,600-pound monument returned. For now, the slab of reddish-brown granite -- engraved with the law as given to Moses, according to the Bible, along with symbols such as the eye of Ra -- stands on the spot it has occupied, save those two days, since 1957.
But no one knows for how long. The Supreme Court has decided this term to review whether displays of the Ten Commandments on public property violate the Constitution. The two cases -- one from Texas, one from Kentucky -- are scheduled for arguments March 2.
It's not known how many such displays there are in the United States. There is one inside the Montgomery County courthouse. Another, in the city of Frederick, sparked a legal battle that is on hold until the Supreme Court rules. Hundreds of stone monuments, including the one here, were erected through the work of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, with an assist from Hollywood.
In the 1940s, a juvenile delinquent who came before Judge E. J. Reugemer in St. Cloud, Minn., revealed that he had no idea what the Ten Commandments were. The judge, a member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, began a campaign to put copies of the Ten Commandments in schools, churches and courthouses.
Then, in 1956, Cecil B. DeMille's publicity machine latched on to the Eagles' campaign and helped fund the monuments to promote "The Ten Commandments," his Academy Award-winning epic with Charlton Heston. Robert P. Wahls, grand secretary in the FOE's national headquarters in Grove City, Ohio, estimates that the Eagles placed about 200 stone monuments throughout the country.