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THE SUPREME COURT

Justices Limit Public Display of Religion

The Supreme Court disallows posting the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses. It allows them on the Texas Capitol grounds.

June 28, 2005|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

"The court's oft-repeated assertion that the government cannot favor religious practice is false," he began. Unlike France, which was founded as a secular state, the United States was founded by public men who spoke often of their devotion to God, he said.

George Washington added the words "so help me God" to the oath of office as president, Scalia said. The president and Congress issue Thanksgiving Proclamations, and the high court decided to open its sessions with the prayer, "God save the United States and this honorable court," he added.

"How can this court possibly assert that the '1st Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and non-religion'?

About 98% of America's religious communities -- Christians, Jews and Muslims -- believe in one God, Scalia said. Since the "overwhelming majority" of Americans believe in a single God, public officials should be permitted to acknowledge this belief through public statements or displays such as the Ten Commandments, he said.

"There is nothing unconstitutional," he added, "in a state's favoring religion generally, honoring God through public prayer and acknowledgment, or ... venerating the Ten Commandments."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony M. Kennedy joined Scalia's dissent.

In the past, the court has struggled to decide disputes involving religious displays. Often, the outcome turned on trivial details.

For example, the court in 1984 upheld a city's display of a manger scene during the Christmas season, but only because it included reindeer and colored lights. Several years later, it struck down a more solemn depiction of Christ's birth that sat during the Christmas season on the steps of Pittsburgh's City Hall.

In Monday's opinion, Souter described how Kentucky's officials used the commandments as a way to make a religious statement. The state's lawmakers endorsed Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore when he was fighting to keep a Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court. The Kentucky officials also spoke of "honoring Jesus Christ, the prince of ethics."

Kentucky once required the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms, but the high court struck down that law 25 years ago.

In 1999, county supervisors voted to post the commandments in several buildings. Judges in McCreary and Pulaski counties posted large, gold-framed copies of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses. They specified the Protestant King James version, the high court noted.

The judges' action showed a "predominant religious purpose" and therefore it was unconstitutional, the court said in McCreary County vs. ACLU.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How they voted

Justice Stephen G. Breyer was the swing vote in allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed outside the Texas Capitol, but not inside two Kentucky courthouses.

Voting to display the Ten Commandments:

*--* Texas Kentucky Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist Yes Yes Antonin Scalia Yes Yes Anthony M. Kennedy Yes Yes Clarence Thomas Yes Yes Stephen G. Breyer Yes No John Paul Stevens No No Ruth Bader Ginsburg No No Sandra Day O'Connor No No David H. Souter No No *--*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Monday's other rulings

The Supreme Court met for the final time this term and:

Ruled unanimously that Internet file-sharing services can be held responsible if they encourage their customers to use software primarily to swap songs and movies illegally.

Decided 6-3 that cable companies may keep rival Internet providers from using their lines.

Ruled 5-4 that an appeals court improperly gave a Tennessee death row inmate a second chance.

Rejected appeals from two journalists who refused to reveal their sources to a prosecutor investigating the leak of a CIA officer's identity.

Ruled 7-2 that police cannot be sued for failing to enforce restraining orders.

Agreed to clarify when evidence collected during improper police searches can be used against a criminal suspect.

Said it would consider whether federal employees can sue in federal court for alleged constitutional violations.

Sources: Supreme Court, Associated Press

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