Published November 13, 2003
| Associated Press
WASHINGTON – A frieze depicting Moses holding two tablets with the Ten Commandments (search) is fixed high above the justices' bench at the Supreme Court, one of several places the biblical law is represented in the marbled building.
But those same justices this week rejected a request to allow a 5,300-pound granite marker with the Ten Commandments carved into it to stay in Alabama's Judicial Building.
It's another illustration of the seemingly conflicting messages about how much religion can legally be in government.
God is in the details — even the grand designs — of the republic. Some of the expressions of religion are widely accepted as part of American traditions — a kind of cultural deity — like a president taking office with the oath, "So help me God."
Others — school prayer, religious icons in town squares, President Bush's turn to religious charities for social services — bring on pitched legal battles or at least a feisty debate over the separation of church and state (search).
Members of Congress who engage in that debate do so after a prayerful beginning to their day. A recent invocation in the Senate included this request, "Fill our God-shaped void with Your presence and bid our striving to cease."
On the same day in the House, members bowed their heads to the plea that "You, Lord, will lead, guide and direct them in their affairs."
Americans pledge allegiance to "one nation under God." U.S. currency says "In God We Trust."
Around the country, state courthouses are decorated with religious art — although nothing quite like the monument that made its debut in Alabama about two years ago and reignited the debate over how God can be represented in public places.
Alabama's associate Supreme Court justices ordered the Ten Commandments monument removed Thursday, despite Chief Justice Roy Moore's fiery defense of the marker.
The chief justice had appealed to the Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the removal order, but the court rejected it. Moore has said he would file a formal appeal with the high court.
The frieze at the high court, which starts off each session with, "God save the United States and this honorable court," is a long-established part of its history. Moses (search) is shown alongside others, the Islamic prophet Muhammad (search) and Chinese lawgiver Confucius (search) among them, in friezes that line the courtroom's ceiling.
Moses is shown holding two tablets, written in Hebrew, with the sixth through 10th commandments partially visible. As well, a depiction of the commandments appears on the courtroom doors from the central hallway, appearing as tablets marked with the Roman numerals for one through 10.
And a frieze over the east entrance of the building features Moses holding blank tablets, flanked by Confucius and the ancient Greek legislator Solon.
They are but one example of the frequent allowances for references to God in older symbols of the nation, especially when those symbols are diverse, and stand in contrast to the Alabama monument, a prominent new addition containing words of the commandments.
While God is in many places, in courtrooms it's a very delicate matter, says John Langan, professor of ethics at Georgetown University.
"People feel very vulnerable there," he said. "They need reassurance they won't be discriminated against and that their values will be taken seriously."
But Langan says people don't consider religious words or signs on currency a real threat.
"You buy the same things with the money whether it has the same message or not," Langan says. "You don't have to worry about it. No one is going to ask you if you're Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. They'll just take the money."
Even so, religious references on money are rare outside of fundamentalist Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, which says on one of its bills: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet."
America's Declaration of Independence in 1776 presupposed that people believed in a divinity. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights ... ."
But the Constitution that followed, in guaranteeing the free exercise of religion, says little about God. Its only reference to a higher power was a much-used expression. "Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven."