U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether public displays of the Ten Commandments on government property are a violation of the U.S. Constitution's ban on the government endorsing religion. The high court heard oral arguments in two cases related to this issue Wednesday.
Outside the Supreme Court, evangelical Christians gathered to sing and pray in hopes of influencing the nine Supreme Court justices to allow displays of the Ten Commandments to continue in or near government buildings in Kentucky and Texas.
The Texas case involves a granite monument on the grounds of the state capital that contains the complete text of the Ten Commandments, which Jewish and Christian holy books say were given to Moses by God.
But the monument, which has been in place for more than 40 years, faces a legal challenge from those who see the display as a government endorsement of religion. That is prohibited under the separation of church and state guarantee contained in the U.S. Constitution.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is leading the effort to keep the Ten Commandments monument in place. He spoke to reporters after he argued the case before the Supreme Court.
"It is perfectly constitutional for a government to recognize a symbol or a text that is religious so long as it is equally clear that the government is not officially endorsing religion. And that is exactly what has happened here with this Ten Commandments display," Mr. Abbott said.
Arguing against the monument was Duke University Law Professor Erwin Chemerinsky. He represents a homeless man from Texas who objects to the Ten Commandments display as a religious symbol on government property.
"Of course the government can put the Ten Commandments displays on government property. But it has to do so in a way that does not endorse religion, does not have the purpose of advancing religion," Mr. Chemerinsky said. "I think our position in both cases was that these particular displays, given their context, given their history, is what made them unconstitutional."
The other case involves framed copies of the Ten Commandments that were hung inside two courthouses in Kentucky.
Two hundred 75 members of a Baptist congregation in Kentucky that supports the Ten Commandments display chartered a bus to Washington so they could pray in front of the Supreme Court.
Carter Stewart is the Baptist minister who led the delegation to Washington.
"It is important to us that the Ten Commandments be posted. Number one, simply because it is the word of God and we feel that our nation is founded on the principles of God and Christianity," Mr. Stewart said.
A few meters away, a smaller group of atheists carried signs and shouted slogans demanding that the Ten Commandments displays be removed.
Rick Wingrove is the Virginia director for a group called American Atheists. He was asked what would happen if the Supreme Court ruled that the displays were legal.
"It would mean that the court has done wrong," he said. "They have abandoned the Jeffersonian [President Thomas Jefferson] principles of the Constitution and that Christianity had gained official favoritism in this country, which will be very bad for people like me. People like me, atheists, who have come to a different conclusion about religion than these people have."
The Bush administration supports the effort to maintain the Ten Commandments displays in Texas and Kentucky. In fact, various depictions of the Ten Commandments are common in town squares and courthouses throughout the country, including inside the Supreme Court chamber itself.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue sometime before the end of June.