WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, declaring that public officials may not seek to advance or promote religion, on Monday struck down the posting of the Ten Commandments on the walls of two Kentucky courthouses.
But the court did not set a clear rule for deciding when the government had gone too far in permitting religious displays, and the decision probably wasn't the last word.
In its 5-4 ruling, the court said the commandments were "a sacred text" that carried an "unmistakably religious" message. For that reason, their prominent display in a government building violates the Constitution's ban on laws "respecting an establishment of religion."
The court's opinion, coming on the final day of its term, narrowly holds the line on the separation of church and state. The government and its officials must be neutral toward religion, the court majority said, and may neither promote nor discourage it.
However, in a separate 5-4 ruling, the justices upheld as constitutional a granite monument depicting the Ten Commandments that sits among 17 other monuments and 21 plaques on the grounds of the Texas Capitol in Austin.
The pair of rulings suggests that the Ten Commandments may be displayed inconspicuously among other documents or monuments, but cannot be made the focus of attention in a courthouse or government building.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who voted to strike down the display in the Kentucky courthouse, cast a fifth vote to uphold the Texas monument. He called it a "borderline case," but stressed that the 44-year-old granite monument did not look to be a religious display. It sits among monuments to war veterans, Boy Scouts, Texas' early pioneer women and others.
The Fraternal Order of Eagles erected the Ten Commandments monument in 1961 as part of its campaign to combat juvenile delinquency, Breyer noted. Visitors to the Capitol grounds might not even notice the monument, he said.
"The Texas display falls on the permissible side of the constitutional line," Breyer concluded. "This display has stood uncontested for nearly two generations.... As a practical matter [it] is unlikely to prove divisive."
In announcing the Kentucky ruling, Justice David H. Souter noted that in the facade above the justices' courtroom, there were stone carvings of 18 ancient lawgivers. One of them is Moses shown holding a tablet. This partial depiction of the Ten Commandments is not objectionable, Souter said, because no reasonable observer would see it as a promotion of religion.
But it is a different matter, he said, when officials prominently display the biblical commandments so that all can see a religious message.
"Context matters," Souter said.
That distinction pleased advocates of church-state separation.
"Everyone interested in religious freedom should want the government to stay neutral when it comes to religion," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way.
But leaders of several Christian groups attacked the Kentucky decision. Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America, called it "tyrannical" and said it "showed once again the nation's top court is completely out of step with the American people."
The Ten Commandments cases came before the court during a time of renewed dispute over the role of religion in public life.
President Bush often has spoken of the importance of religion, and he has promoted a faith-based initiative to direct taxpayer money to church-sponsored groups. Administration lawyers endorsed the displays of the Ten Commandments in the Kentucky and Texas cases, arguing that the government should be allowed to give "official acknowledgment" to religion.
The justices in the Kentucky case majority seemed just as determined to hold the line.
"The divisiveness of religion in current public life is inescapable," Souter said. "This is no time to deny the prudence of understanding the establishment clause [of the 1st Amendment] to require the government to stay neutral on religious belief, which is reserved for the conscience of the individual."
He and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said they saw a danger in allowing the government to take sides on religious matters.
"Allowing the government to be a potential mouthpiece for competing religious ideas risks the sort of division" that the Constitution sought to avoid, O'Connor said. "Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?"
Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Breyer joined them.
Justice Antonin Scalia responded to the Kentucky ruling with strong dissent, accusing his colleagues of ignoring religion's role in the nation's founding.