A patchwork of recent court rulings over displays of the Ten Commandments in state buildings has led to confusion about what makes a Decalogue in public places constitutional. The legal issue is whether government displays of religious symbols violate the constitutional wall between church and state. For any Decalogue to survive a constitutional challenge, a court must find it has a “secular purpose” and that a “reasonable observer” would not view its “primary effect” as “endorsing religion.” There’s been a flood of litigation of biblical proportions, yet these decisions have failed to yield any clear rule about which tablets are secular and which are unconstitutional.
In general, solo displays on public property of the Ten Commandments have been found unconstitutional. A display of the Ten Commandments containing other documents of “historical” or “legal” significance may be constitutional, but as one court said, unhelpfully, it “depends on the context.” Since there’s never been a Supreme Court ruling on this issue, deciding how a court will interpret a Ten Commandments display depends on vagaries, including visual context, artists’ intent, and even what “aura” it invokes. Yet last month’s opinion ordering the removal of a Decalogue from the rotunda of the Alabama judicial building sheds some light on the factors used to evaluate such displays around the nation.
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