Will the Fight Over Religious Displays in America Ever End?

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that placement of the Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol in Oklahoma City violated the state Constitution. (Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)
The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that placement of the Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol in Oklahoma City violated the state Constitution. (Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling last week that a Ten Commandments monument must be removed from the grounds of the state Capitol prompted outrage, drew praise and posed a question: Will controversy over religious displays ever end?

 

For many legal scholars, the outsize role that religion plays in America made the possibility unlikely.

“It’s a symbolic fight about how people understand their country,” said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center in Washington.

“There are very many Americans who believe that unless we acknowledge our roots and Christian tradition as a country, we will fail,” he said, pointing to Oklahoma. “This is one of a number of efforts that have been made over the course of our history to reassert that understanding of America.”

The Oklahoma case was not the first involving the Ten Commandments.

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up the topic as well and in 2005 issued two rulings with pointedly different conclusions.

The first decision, in McCreary County vs. ACLU, concerned displays of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses. Other documents were displayed as well, such as the “endowed by their creator” passage from the Declaration of Independence. The court barred the displays, saying they clearly promoted the commandments, rather than educated viewers about historical documents.

The second decision, in Van Orden vs. Perry, found that a 6-foot-tall monument at the Texas Capitol inscribed with the Ten Commandments was constitutional.

In that case, the court said the monument, erected decades earlier, was one of 21 historical markers and 17 monuments on the vast lawns of the Capitol and, in that context, more historical than religious.

“In certain contexts, a display of the tablets of the Ten Commandments can convey not simply a religious message but also a secular moral message,” wrote Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the court’s swing vote in both 5-4 cases, in a concurring opinion.

It was that case that led Oklahoma lawmakers to believe they had leeway in building a Ten Commandments monument in Oklahoma City.

The Legislature passed a bill in 2009 calling for a 6-foot-tall monument identical in design to its Texas counterpart — one carved from granite, embellished with the Star of David and Greek letters. It would be located near monuments bearing Native American symbols.

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SOURCE: NATALIE SCHACHAR
The Los Angeles Times

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