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High Court Debates Commandments Displays

1 hour, 12 minutes ago

By HOPE YEN, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - With demonstrators shouting religious slogans outside, Supreme Court justices questioned, argued and fretted Wednesday over whether Ten Commandments displays on government property cross the line of separation between church and state.

AP Photo

AP Photo

Slideshow: Ten Commandments Display Debate

Court Hears Debate Over Ten Commandments

(AP Video)

Back-to-back arguments in cases from Texas and Kentucky were the court's first consideration of the issue since 1980, when justices ruled the Ten Commandments could not be displayed in public schools.

Clearly reluctant to adopt a blanket ban, the current justices wrestled with the role that religious symbols should play in public life -- right down to the Ten Commandments display in their own courtroom.

Several expressed support for a 6-foot granite monument on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol, but were less certain about framed copies of the commandments in two Kentucky courthouses.

"If an atheist walks by, he can avert his eyes," Justice Anthony Kennedy (news - web sites) said in a courtroom filled with spectators, many of whom could be seen glancing at the court's frieze of Moses carrying the tablets.

Banning the Texas display might "show hostility to religion," he said.

But Justices John Paul Stevens (news - web sites) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (news - web sites), while acknowledging the nation's religious history, wondered where the line should be drawn. The court ruled in 1983 that legislative prayer is allowable, citing its historical significance, but in 1992 said prayer in public schools is not because students may feel pressure to participate.

What if every federal court had a Ten Commandments display over its bench and opened with a prayer, Ginsburg asked, brushing aside Justice Antonin Scalia (news - web sites)'s retort that the justices already open their sessions with "God save this honorable court."

"We would try and defend that," said acting Solicitor General Paul Clement, who argued on behalf of the Bush administration in supporting the Ten Commandments displays.

A pivotal vote in the case is expected to be Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (news - web sites), who in recent years has been at the forefront in outlining constitutional tests based in part on a symbol's history and "ubiquity." She did not tip her hand Wednesday, if she had one.

"It's so hard to draw that line" between allowing a legislative prayer and not allowing a Ten Commandments display, O'Connor fretted at one point.

Monuments carrying the Ten Commandments are common in



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