The Bush administration on Wednesday urged the Supreme Court to allow Ten Commandments (search) displays on government property, adding a federal view on a major church-state case that justices will deal with early next year.
The government has weighed in before in religion cases at the high court, including one earlier this year that challenged the words "under God" in the classroom recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (search).
The government supported a California school district in that case. Now, it is backing two Kentucky counties that had framed copies of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses.
The American Civil Liberties Union (search) sued McCreary and Pulaski counties, claiming the displays were an unconstitutional promotion of religion. The group won.
Justices will hear arguments, probably in February, in the counties' appeal and in a second case involving a Texas homeless man who wants a 6-foot granite monument removed from the state Capitol grounds.
The administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, Paul Clement, told justices in Wednesday's filing that Ten Commandments displays are common around the nation - and in the court's own building, the Capitol and national monuments.
"Reproductions and representations of the Ten Commandments have been commonly employed across the country to symbolize both the rule of law itself, as well as the role of religion in the development of American law," Clement wrote.
Clement said the displays are important in educating people "about the nation's history and celebrating its heritage."
The Supreme Court banned the posting of Ten Commandments in public schools in 1980.
Clement argued that courthouses are different from schools and often have "historic symbols of law."
Douglas Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor and former legal counsel to President Reagan and the first President Bush, said that the government had been expected to file arguments in the case. "It would have been politically untenable and legally timid if the government's chief court litigator had not done so," he said.
The case is McCreary County v. ACLU, 03-1693.