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Supreme Court refuses appeal on Ten Commandments display

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review a lower court decision that the display of the Ten Commandments on government property is unconstitutional.

The high court’s May 29 announcement left standing a federal appeals court ruling that a granite monument engraved with the Ten Commandments and located on public property in Elkhart, Ind., violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion.

In an uncommon move, three Supreme Court justices joined in a written dissent, explaining they wanted to accept the appeal from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Four justices must agree in order to review a decision.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist argued in his dissent the high court had never determined the Ten Commandments “lack a secular application.”

The Ten Commandments are religious in nature, but they “have secular significance as well, because they have made a substantial contribution to our secular legal codes,” Rehnquist wrote. The “city is not bound to display only symbols that are wholly secular or to convey solely secular messages,” he said. “The fact that the monument conveys some religious meaning does not cast doubt on the city’s valid secular purposes for its display.”

The display of the monument in front of Elkhart’s Municipal Building, which contains the local courts, “emphasizes the foundational role” of the Ten Commandments in legal issues, Rehnquist wrote. A carving of Moses holding the tablets containing the Ten Commandments is among diplays of legal figures on a wall of the Supreme Court, he said. Rehnquist said the monument is joined by two nonreligious markers in front of Elkhart’s Municipal Building, signifying it is part of the city’s heritage and not a “promotion of religious faith.”

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens said the three dissenters ignored the first two lines of the monument, which appear in larger type and read: “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS — I AM the LORD thy God.”

“The graphic emphasis placed on those first lines is rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference … ,” Stevens wrote.

Joining Rehnquist in his dissent were Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

The American Center for Law and Justice, which represented the city of Elkhart in its appeal, expressed disappointment.

“The Supreme Court missed an important opportunity to clarify an issue that has become the center of a national debate,” ACLJ Senior Counsel Francis Manion said in a written release. “The court’s decision not to weigh in on the Ten Commandments issue will only add to the confusion surrounding the displays of Ten Commandments in communities across America.”

The ACLJ is participating in 10 cases involving challenges to the public display of the Ten Commandments.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a written statement, “There’s an easy solution to this controversy: Let religious groups promote the Ten Commandments. The government should stay out of it.”

The monument was financed by a local service organization and has stood on the site in Elkhart since 1958.