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Ten Commandments Controversy

The U-S Supreme Court earlier this month (Mar) heard oral arguments on two cases involving the constitutionality of public displays of the Ten Commandments on government property. Those bringing the challenges contend that such displays violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U-S constitution. Those who defend the displays argue that they reflect the acknowledgment of the Ten Commandments' significant role in the development of American law and government. We asked Robert Kraynak, professor of political science at Colgate University, if such displays go against what the founding fathers had in mind when they put together the constitution:

"In my opinion they do not. In my opinion this are part of a national heritage of America, of Americans as religious people, and that they do not establish a national church like the church of England or even like the early Puritans had in America and in American politics," he says. "For example we have long recognized that the words in “God We Trust” in our consciences is part of our national heritage. We allow chaplains to say public prayers in our legislative assemblies, even in the Supreme Court. We display crosses on the graves of our dead soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery," he says. "In my opinion these displays of the Ten Commandments follow the patterns of public expressions by a religious people."

Robert Knapp, chairman of the New York State Bar Association Committee on Federal Constitution and Legislature, says in his opinion, the issue isn't black and white.

"I think it depends on the context. I don’t think anyone would argue for instance that if the Smithsonian Institute had a Guttenberg Bible, which it puts on display, and left open to the 3d chapter of Exodus that has the Ten Commandments, that would be the establishment of religion," he says. "On the other hand if you have the Ten Commandments displayed in a court house wall, that is much more problematic, because if you actually read the Ten Commandments they are overwhelmingly religious in context. The first commandment is, “Thou shalt not have other Gods besides me”, in fact the first amendment permits other Gods or no Gods," he added. "I think when you have the Ten Commandments displayed in a way that suggests government endorsement of their message there is an establishment clause violation."

While the cases specifically involve Ten Commandments displays, a broad ruling by the Supreme Court could define the proper place of religion in public life. We asked Professor Kraynak of Colgate University if the Supreme Court should take on cases dealing with theological disputes.

"The Supreme Court has been somewhat inconsistent. It has pretty much admitted it doesn’t have a clear guideline for determining when a public display of religion is constitutional or unconstitutional. In the last 40 or 50 years it has in some cases said things like prayer in public schools or bible reading in public schools is unconstitutional, but it has said for example that legislative chaplains can give non-denominational prayers in front of the state assemblies," he says. "So the court does need to make judgments about this but it’s had a great deal of difficulty in formulating a clear guideline. I think actually they should take a look at the free exercise part of the first amendment, and they could find this to be constitutional."

Attorney Robert Knapp has a prediction:

"My best guess is they will uphold the Texas display, they will strike down the Kentucky display, which is what the lower courts did in each case and that we will be left with the same message we already have which is, displays of religious messages in public property are permissible as long as they are not presented in such a way as to suggest government endorsement of religion," he says. "I don’t think the Supreme Court has any choice but to get involved in this. This is an avoidable issue under the first amendment as long as we have people who keep wanting to post this things in public places which sometimes is permitted and sometimes isn’t."

Note: Point of View is a weekly VOA radio segement that features leaders and experts debating different sides of an issue or topic. Click on the audio link above to listen to the full program.