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Q&A: Ten Commandments rulings

As the US Supreme Court issues mixed rulings on displays of the Ten Commandments on public property, BBC News considers key questions surrounding the cases.

What has the Supreme Court ruled?

The country's highest court considered two cases of displays of the Ten Commandments at public locations, and delivered what are being read as mixed messages on the controversial issue.

The justices found 5-4 that a six-foot (1.8m) granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol does not cross the line between church and state.

However, in another tight 5-4 decision, it held that courthouse exhibits in Kentucky did cross the line, because they promoted a religious message.

Justices left legal "wiggle room" however, declining to prohibit all displays in court buildings.

Some displays - like the frieze depicting Moses with the tablets inside the Supreme Court itself - are permissible if they are portrayed neutrally to honour the nation's legal history.

Why is it a contentious issue?

The case goes to the heart of the US Constitution, and comes at a time of tension between secular and religious America.

Such decisions are seen as important signposts of the kind of society the United States wants to be.

The Christian right has rallied to the defence of a monument that it says represents not just an article of faith but a cornerstone of American life.

Opponents say such displays send a message of religious favouritism, rather than neutrality.

For some, the close decision of the Supreme Court on both cases will highlight the wider divisions in US society over the issue.

But the latest opinion polls suggest that some three-quarters of Americans support displaying the Ten Commandments on government property.

What are the differences in the two cases?

Kentucky
The Kentucky cases related to framed posters of the Ten Commandments, affixed inside two county courthouses in 1999.

After the American Civil Liberties Union filed its suit, the counties modified their displays with other documents demonstrating "America's Christian heritage".

These included the national motto of "In God We Trust" and a version of the Congressional Record declaring 1983 the "Year of the Bible".

The amended display was dismissed by the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeal, which pointed to the religious intent behind it.

Texas
In Texas, the Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the exhibit in 1961, and it was installed about 75ft (23m) from the state capitol in Austin.

The idea of building monuments to the Commandments - rather than just posting paper copies as the Fraternal Order had been doing - came from Hollywood director Cecil B DeMille, who wanted to promote his film, The Ten Commandments.

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

The case against the monument was brought by a homeless lawyer, Thomas Van Orden, and it took three years to reach the US Supreme Court - having been defeated twice in lower courts.

Is this the end of the matter?

A number of legal battles have taken place around the country in recent years concerning displays of the Ten Commandments, producing conflicting opinions from lower courts.

In effect, the Supreme Court has said it is taking the position that issues of Ten Commandments displays in courthouses should be resolved on a case-by-case basis.

The last time it ruled on the issue was in 1980, when it banned the posting of copies of the commandments in school classrooms.

It is thought likely the court will again be called to rule on the issues before long.




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