Should the nation's 4,000-odd Ten Commandments displays be removed from the courthouses, civic buildings and parks where they're installed? Beyond that, must public property be stripped of all references to religion?
On March 2, the U.S. Supreme Court, whose own building features four artworks showing the sacred tablets -- minus the biblical text -- hears arguments on this emotional matter. The cases involve a large monument on the Texas Capitol grounds and a wall posting alongside secular documents in a Kentucky courthouse.
Religion's cultural and legal status in America could be affected by the results, yet the nation's major Christian denominations are surprisingly absent from the legal fray. That leaves atheists and followers of Asian religion working against displays -- claiming the commandments create favoritism for the Judeo-Christian tradition -- while Christian activists left and right line up on opposite sides.
Jewish organizations also are divided.
The leaders of Orthodox Judaism have petitioned the high court to uphold the displays, arguing that the celebrated biblical text is religious but also conveys secular "principles of humanity and morality that have universal application." Decalogue displays don't compel passers-by to worship, the Orthodox say, and anyone who is offended can simply look away.
But Judaism's liberal Reform branch and Jewish communal organizations consider the commandments "intensely sectarian statements, amounting to a binding dogmatic statement of faith and morals." They believe the government is endorsing the text and thus violating the Constitution's ban on establishment of religion.
The Anti-Defamation League adds that the commandments are a flash point because fellow Jews are bound by all 613 scriptural rules, while Christians emphasize just the 10. It also sees a conflict with Islam, which deems the Bible a "corrupted textual tradition."
The Quran actually contains the commandments, but not as one list -- and it differs by forbidding work only during Friday worship, not all day Saturday. Major U.S. Muslim organizations have not taken stands on the cases.
Nor have many prominent Christian bodies. A spokesman says the Southern Baptist Convention figured activist groups could handle the pro-displays cause and the SBC wasn't asked to endorse their briefs. Attorneys for the Roman Catholic bishops' conference saw no direct church interest at stake. The National Council of Churches took no stand because member denominations disagree.
'Just go away'
Though polls show the public favors the commandment displays, a view expressed by the U.S. Justice Department and all 26 state attorneys general who filed briefs, some Christian leaders are opposed. Charles Haynes, religion scholar at the Virginia-based First Amendment Center, thinks many church officials are silent because they can't afford to appear anti-Bible.
"A lot of religious groups would like these cases to just go away," he says.
Under Supreme Court doctrine, government actions must have a "secular purpose." Using that test, the court outlawed Ten Commandments postings in public schools in 1980.
Moral, legal tradition
Defenders of the displays in nonschool contexts say the purpose is conveying of the nation's moral and legal tradition. Some Christian conservatives argue that even the overtly religious tenets among the Ten Commandments are legally important, because they put morality beyond the power of autocrats.
Noted legal historian Harold Berman of Emory University, for one, calls the Decalogue "a historical source of universal legal obligations" and "an integral part of the legal heritage of Western civilization."
But David Friedman, who will present the case against Kentucky's display for the American Civil Liberties Union, maintains that "the Ten Commandments had virtually no effect or influence on the foundation of our country," despite "wildly exaggerated assertions" from advocates. A brief by 14 university professors backs his view.
Some might consider Ten Commandments displays to be unimportant in and of themselves. But the stakes will escalate greatly if the Supreme Court uses this moment to reconsider its overall policy concerning church-state separation.
The time could conceivably be right for such a shift. Conflicting opinions among seven federal appeals courts that have heard cases on the commandments over the last six years show how muddled government policy is when it comes to allowing religion into public life.