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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 March 2005, 10:34 GMT
US battle over Ten Commandments
By Ian Pannell
BBC News, Washington

Texas display of the 10 Commandments
The Biblical display stands outside the Texas State Capitol
The US Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed on public property.

The case goes to the very heart of the US Constitution and the battle between the secular and the religious in George W Bush's America.

It has taken three years to bring this to the attention of the highest court in the land.

And what makes it all the more remarkable is that it has been brought by one homeless man in Texas.

A humble fighter

Austin is the rather genteel capital of the Lone Star state.

It is a part of the country that is built on the memory of the Alamo, where the spirit of the frontier lives on.

The lush grounds of the State Capitol are a place to rest and read, to lunch and learn a little of the history of Texas.
Thomas Van Orden, lawyer behind the case
A display such as we have in Texas of the Ten Commandments monument sends a message of religious favouritism rather than neutrality
Thomas Van Orden, lawyer
There are 17 monuments in the grounds of this open-air museum, statues that commemorate wars, revolutions and heroes.

Now Texas has a new fight on its hands, over a six foot (1.8m), red granite carving of the Ten Commandments. The case has been brought by Thomas Van Orden.

It is an impressive achievement for any lawyer, especially one who is also homeless and unemployed.

Thomas does not like to talk about his personal circumstances, though he admits that pursuing a case for three years with no money and no support has been a unique challenge.

His case is that the statue breaches the constitutional separation of church and state.

"Religion thrives in this country, but government must stand neutral," Mr Thomas says.

"A display such as we have in Texas of the Ten Commandments monument sends a message of religious favouritism rather than neutrality."

History as a defence

Inevitably the case has attracted the attention and the resistance of the Christian right.

Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz
The Ten Commandments are indisputably a historical document that has an important secular impact on the development of Western legal codes
Ted Cruz, Texas Solicitor General
Groups have rallied to the defence of a monument that represents not just an article of faith but a cornerstone of American life. But the state of Texas has a different defence.

Solicitor General Ted Cruz has been arguing with success in the courts that the statue may be religious but its setting and context are not.

"The Ten Commandments are indisputably a historical document that has an important secular impact on the development of Western legal codes and Western civilisation, and under US law it is sensible to acknowledge that," Mr Cruz says.

The Bush administration has also entered the fray, filing a brief in support of the Texas government.

"Religion has played a leading role in the history of the United States. Government may commemorate the Decalogue's influence on American legal and cultural history," the Bush administration says in its brief.

In truth, religion is already well established in American public life and the fixtures and fittings of Christianity are never far from view.

An historical battle

The separation of Church and state has never been quite what the secularists in this argument contend.

In the 1940s a juvenile court judge in Minnesota sentenced a juvenile delinquent, who had not only stolen a car but run over a priest in the process, to learn the Ten Commandments.

"Everybody thought this was a good idea, a way to help build morality and character," the judge told the Minneapolis Star Tribune just two years ago.

In the mid-1950s the idea caught the attention of Hollywood director, Cecil B DeMille, who wanted to promote his new film, The Ten Commandments.

With a flare for publicity, his twist was to build monuments to the tablets rather than just posting paper copies as the Fraternal Order had been doing.

The stars of the film, Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, were dispatched by DeMille to appear at some of the dedications.

Over the years, thousands were erected in schools, courtrooms and public grounds, including the Texas State capitol in Austin.

Now the Supreme Court must decide whether this small block of granite is history or religion, whether it can stay or must be pulled down.

Once again, America must reflect on what kind of society it really wants to be.

Watch Ian Pannell's TV report

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