The Ten Commandments: Religion or history?

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washington | Are the Ten Commandments a historical document or a religious symbol?

That’s one of the questions that will be before the U.S. Supreme Court when it hears two cases early next month on the public display of the Decalogue on government property. The central issue is whether states and municipalities can acknowledge the Ten Commandments as the root of American law without endorsing faiths that follow their teachings.

Several Jewish groups have weighed in on the cases, with most opposing displays that they feel endorse Judeo-Christian values — and even push a Protestant message over Jewish and Catholic interpretations of the Ten Commandments.

A coalition of Orthodox groups has taken an opposing tack, saying that religious symbols also can have secular meaning and that the Ten Commandments’ role in modern legal codes should be acknowledged.

The court’s decision is expected to have a great impact on the growing debate about the role of religion in government and society. Approval of commandment displays could lead to a proliferation of similar displays, while rejection could spark a backlash similar to what was seen, beginning in 2002, against the removal of “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

“The cases pending have a larger meaning,” said Marc Stern, counsel for the American Jewish Congress. “They are viewed as part of the cultural war” and the question of “to what extent the government can recognize and pay homage to religion’s special status in society.”

The court is scheduled to hear both Van Orden v. Perry and McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky on March 2.

The Van Orden case concerns a Ten Commandments display situated between the Texas State Capitol and the Texas Supreme Court in Austin, donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The display also has several religious symbols within it, including two Stars of David.

In McCreary County, a printed display of the Ten Commandments is one of nine documents adorning courthouse walls in Kentucky.

In both cases, opponents argue that any display of the Ten Commandments is unconstitutional because it inherently means endorsing one religion over another by the choice of text, and slighting religions that don’t believe in the Decalogue.

Ironically, the Supreme Court’s own walls include a carving of Moses carrying the Ten Commandments, alongside carvings of Confucius and Muhammad and such historical figures as Napoleon.

Jewish groups do not object to the Supreme Court display because it is seen as part of a broader, historical context that embraces non-religious as well as religious leaders.

All involved hope the cases will help clarify the line of acceptable displays of religious symbols and affirmations.

Last year, the court chose not to rule on the merits of the term “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Statements of ceremonial deism, such as “in God we trust,” are seen as a generic recognition of God that incorporates the religious traditions of most faiths.