Signs of the Times

Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Display of Ten Commandments

In two cases argued on March 2 over displays of the Ten Commandments on government property, U.S. Supreme Court justices raised questions about the motives of government authorities who ordered the displays, about the difference between versions of the commandments, and about what sort of tests should be used to evaluate the displays’ constitutionality.

In the cases, which were heard separately, the court is being asked to rule on the constitutionality of a 40-year-old granite Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol in Austin, and displays of framed copies of the commandments amid other historic documents on the walls of courthouses in McCreary County and Pulaski County in Kentucky.


Although some defenders of the monuments have portrayed the cases as a critical turning point for religious rights, other legal observers have said it is more likely that decisions in these cases will affect little more than other such monumentsthose already in place and future attempts to set up displays of the Ten Commandments on government property.

Supporters of the monuments in both cases, including the acting U.S. solicitor general, argued that the Texas Legislature and county supervisors in the two Kentucky counties were not promoting a particular religion but merely giving appropriate credit to the historic importance of the commandments in the foundation of the U.S. government and its legal system.

Attorneys for opponents of the monuments tended to stick to the specific circumstances of each case, avoiding the justices’ efforts to discuss the circumstances under which it would be appropriate to have government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments.

David Friedman, arguing for the American Civil Liberties Union in its case, McCreary County v. A.C.L.U. of Kentucky, pointed to resolutions passed by the two counties’ governing bodies that said displays of the Ten Commandments in the courthouses were justified because Jesus is the prince of ethics and that expressed support for former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who was forced from his job after he refused to remove a monument he had placed prominently in his courthouse.

The counties’ supervisors absolutely intended and felt they had a right to display the Ten Commandments because of the religious nature of the displays, Friedman said. Even a third version of the display, which included equal-sized versions of other historic documents in addition to the commandments, emphasized that the tablets Moses received from God are the foundation of our legal system, he said.

In their questions, several justices focused on the resolutions as evidence that the purpose of the monuments was and is overtly religious. Everybody knows what’s going on, said Justice David Souter, who said adaptations of the display were made strictly to get something the courts would allow, while still serving their original purpose.

Mat Staver, arguing for the Kentucky counties, urged the justices to look beyond the overtly Christian intentions of the county supervisors who commissioned the original displays, in which only the Ten Commandments were posted in 1999. He said the court should focus instead on the third version of the displays, created after lower courts rejected earlier versions as too overtly Christian, to the exclusion of other belief systems.

news photo In the Texas case, Erwin Chemerinsky argued that because the commandments’ display is the only religiously themed piece among 17 monuments on the grounds of the state capitol, it unconstitutionally elevates specific Judeo-Christian beliefs above other religions.

Justice John Paul Stevens several times raised the question of how the monuments could be considered a secular tribute to the origins of law when even different branches of Christianity use different versions of the commandments. Such monuments around the country typically include the version of the commandments familiar to most Protestants. It differs from the one familiar to Catholics in that it includes a prohibition on worshiping graven images and combines into one commandment what the Catholic version treats as two, forbidding coveting a neighbor’s wife and coveting a neighbor’s goods.

Justice Antonin Scalia argued that it doesn’t matter what version it is, if it stands for the belief that the law is from God. Scalia said most people wouldn’t know the difference. I think 90 percent of the American people believe in the Ten Commandments, but virtually 85 percent couldn’t tell you what the 10 are, he said. When somebody walks by such a monument, he said, it’s not important what the exact words are, but that they remind people of God’s role in shaping the founders’ beliefs and the system of law.

The Hindu American Foundation said such monuments signal to Hindus and people of other faiths that their beliefs are less valued than Judeo-Christian beliefs, despite the First Amendment’s language that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

Pope Celebrates Mass, Meets With Aides

news photo Five days after a tracheotomy to relieve breathing problems, Pope John Paul II was able to say Mass in his hospital room, meet with aides and continue initial sessions of speech therapy, the Vatican said.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who brought the pope some papers to work on, told reporters on March 1 that the pontiff had spoken to himin two languages, German and Italian. The pope was able and alert, and he’ll work on the things I brought him, said the cardinal, who heads the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation.

The Vatican spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, told reporters the same day that the pope’s recovery was completely normal and that he had spent another peaceful night at Rome’s Agostino Gemelli Polyclinic. Navarro-Valls called the 84-year-old pope a good patient and said he was carrying on with breathing and speech rehabilitation exercises. A day earlier, the spokesman had said the pope had no complications in his recovery phase and was in good condition.

Concern about the pope’s ability to speak was one of the larger questions hanging over his recovery. Medical experts said that if the tracheotomy tube is left in, speech would be possible but more difficult for the pope and would not be as audible. The Vatican has not said how long the pope is expected to remain in the hospital.

Those wishing to e-mail greetings and promises of prayers to the pope can do so at

News Briefs

The Archdiocese of St. Louis has announced a parish consolidation plan that will result in the closing of 24 parishes and 10 elementary schools. Another 23 city and suburban elementary schools will be closed in the Archdiocese of Chicago at the end of the school year as part of a restructuring plan. Since 1984, 130 Catholic elementary schools in Chicago have closed, 39 of them since 2000.

During this year’s Easter Vigil celebrations, tens of thousands of people across the country will be welcomed into the Catholic Church. Last year more than 150,000 Americans were baptized as Catholics or received into the full communion of the Catholic Church during the vigil.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on March 1 that overturned the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles was hailed as validating the position of religious, child advocacy, legal and medical groups that had urged the court to find such executions unconstitutional. In a statement issued the same day the court’s 5-to-4 decision was announced, Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ domestic policy committee, said the bishops’ conference is very encouraged that the Supreme Court has recognized that executing juvenile offenders is indeed cruel and unusual.

The Zimbabwean government’s control over accreditation of election observers severely hampers the country’s chances of holding fair elections, said church leaders in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Auxiliary Bishop Patrick Mumbure Mutume of Mutare, Zimbabwe, who hopes to observe the general elections on March 31 along with other representatives of churches and nongovernmental organizations, said the state-controlled last-minute accreditation process diminishes observers’ chances of doing a good job.

Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told Vatican Radio on Feb. 24 that if Terri Schiavo’s husband, Michael, is legally able to provoke the death of his wife, this would not only be tragic in itself, but it would be a serious step toward the legal approval of euthanasia in the United States.

Churches in Britain have united to launch a document they hope will place poverty on the political agenda as national elections approach. Churches Together in Britain and Ireland published a 62-page booklet that includes the statement, It is the responsibility of those engaged in politics to reconcile the outcomes of the market economy with the common good. The principle of nobody left behind should be embraced by the mainstream political parties, says the report.

Haiti’s problems are more social than political, said Deacon Patrick Moynihan, who runs a school for poor children in Haiti. It does not matter to a child that his or her lack of education is the fault of a right-wing or a left-wing government, said Deacon Moynihan. The politicians change but the problems are still the same, he said Feb. 21 at a workshop on Caribbean issues during the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Wash-ington, D.C.

Tim Russert, NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press, said the principal task of the United States is to make a better world for its young people. Russert said on Feb. 22 in an address at the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington that with 15 million kids largely living off the streets and 12 youths shot dead daily in the United States, addressing the issue is imperative.

Catholics and Jews must not only continue the dialogue between their faith communities, but also speak together as people of faith as they engage secular American culture, Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I., of Chicago said on Feb. 21 during the 10th annual Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Jerusalem Lecture.

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