The Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether displaying the Ten Commandments on government property violates the constitutional ban against official endorsement of religion. The high court will hear oral arguments in two cases Wednesday.
At issue are public displays of the Ten Commandments in Texas and Kentucky. The Texas monument has been outside the state capitol in Austin since 1961 while the Kentucky case involves framed copies of the Ten Commandments that were placed on the walls of two courthouses in 1999.
Critics of the displays say they violate the constitutional prohibitions against the government endorsing religion.
According to Jewish and Christian holy books the Ten Commandments were laws given to Moses by God.
Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Texas Law School, argues that the Ten Commandments primarily represent religious symbolism and should not be prominently displayed on government property.
"[It] begins with, 'I am the Lord, thy God', and then says, 'Thou shalt have no other Gods before me, thou shalt not have any graven images.' That does not sound like law," said Professor Laycock. "That sounds like religion. The first half of the [Ten] Commandments really have no secular equivalents. They are purely and entirely about one's duties toward God."
Supporters of publicly displaying the Ten Commandments, including the Bush administration, have a different view. They contend that the Commandments symbolize the Judeo-Christian roots that form the foundation of modern legal principles.
Jay Sekulow, who is with the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm that frequently represents conservative Christian activists, argues that most Americans have already accepted displays of the Ten Commandments in or near numerous government buildings around the country, including the Supreme Court itself.
"Why is it there? It is because it is a universal symbol of law," he said. "And the Supreme Court has to be careful when it issues its opinions to leave room not only for its own display, but for the tens of thousands of displays in courthouses, county facilities throughout the United States."
Supporters also argue that the displays of the Ten Commandments are not intrusive for non-believers since people can simply avert their eyes or walk away.
Legal experts say the key question for the Supreme Court is whether the displays at public buildings constitute government endorsement of religion, which is banned under the constitutional mandate separating church and state.
The court is expected to rule on the issue by the end of June.