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Posted October 19, 2004

Supreme Court takes cases on
Ten Commandments, religious rights

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

In 2001, the book One Nation Under God: Religious Symbols, Quotes and Images in Our Nation’s Capital [Our Sunday Visitor] was published. The book contains more than 76 photos of statues, symbols and friezes that connote religion in and around the U.S. Capitol. One frieze on the east side of the Supreme Court contains Moses seated holding the Ten Commandments. On the west rim of the Supreme Court is a medallion of Moses. In the Federal Court building just down the hill from the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court can be found a trilon [three sided pyramid] with the Ten Commandments, and on the doors of the court rooms in this same building are engraving of the Ten Commandments.

It should also be noted that crucifixes abound inside the U.S. Capitol and on its doors. In fact, the painting of the Discovery of the Mississippi depicts De Soto on its shores with a priest posting the crucifix on its shores, and above this painting one finds the burial of De Soto with a priest in chasuble and another priest with a crucifix.

The Library of Congress has a quote from the Prophet Micah “What does God require of you? Justice, mercy and to walk humbly in his ways.” Another quote from scripture in the Library is: “Wisdom is the principle thing. Get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding.” We also find there a copy of the Guttenberg Bible and monks coping the scriptures and other literary works in an effort to hand on the Christian tradition.

In the Cox corridor on the Congress side of the U.S., we read in one of the pictures: God bless America, and also see a beautiful painting of the first missions in California.

Five statues of Catholic heroes stand in Statuary Hall and throughout the U.S. Capitol: Damian, Serra, Mother Joseph, Marquette, and Jesuit Eusebio Kino. On their sides are rosaries adorned with crucifixes.

Why now are we seeing anything that resembles religion and which is part of the American tradition being questioned? Who are the people who question our tradition, and what do they recommend we replace it with? What have they contributed to our tradition. What rights do they have, and what rights are in the original traditions upon which this country was built?

Interestingly, half of the signers of the Constitution depicted in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol were ministers, men of God. Daniel Webster would recite the bible out loud in his senate chamber each morning before beginning work.

The question before the Supreme Court on religious practices calls into question how much we Americans know and cherish our traditions. Do we really know our history?

On this topic it would be well worth our while to read the book: Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah and associates. It gives us a very good historical background on the religious beliefs upon which our country was built.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Supreme Court will consider three cases this term that have implications for religious practices and displays.

The court Oct.12 agreed to hear at the same time two cases over whether it violates the Constitution to display the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas Capitol and in Kentucky courthouses.

The court also accepted a case over the constitutionality of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, known as RLUIPA. The case questions whether the law violates prisoners' rights to deny them access to religious materials and services.

In one of the Ten Commandments cases, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Texas may keep a display of the commandments on the grounds of the state Capitol in Austin. The court said the Ten Commandments also had historic and societal value and that people who saw the display would not conclude the state was endorsing their religious message.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in a case out of McCreary County, Ky., rejected such displays in county courthouses. That court said that even though other documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta had been added, the displays were "blatantly religious."

The court did not accept a third Ten Commandments case, in which the American Civil Liberties Union challenged such displays in Kentucky public schools. The cases it accepted are Van Orden vs. Perry and McCreary County vs. ACLU.

The prisoners' rights case, Cutter vs. Wilkinson, will review the 6th Circuit's finding that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The 2000 law was passed as a successor to the broader Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2000. It says that governments must provide strong justifications for restricting certain types of land use by religious institutions, such as expanding a church. It also applies to prisons and other institutions that receive federal funds in situations where laws or regulations impose a burden on religious exercise.

In the Ohio case accepted by the court, three prisoners sued over their inability to obtain religious literature and to conduct services. All three prisoners are followers of unconventional religions, including Satanism and Wicca.

Last December the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in a case over whether a Virginia prisoner should be provided with a kosher diet.

Anthony R. Picarello Jr., president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement that the issue in the Ohio case "is much bigger than RLUIPA -- it's about whether government can pass any law that specially accommodates religious exercise."

He said the court's decision could affect thousands of accommodations for religion that are a part of federal, state and local laws nationwide. They include provisions allowing Jews in the military to wear yarmulkes and Ohio's exemption of minors from underage drinking laws for religious purposes.

All the cases will be heard after the first of the year.