AUSTIN, Texas – On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court (search) will consider whether a 6-foot granite monument on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol bearing the words "I am the Lord thy God" — and two similar displays at Kentucky courthouses — constitute unconstitutional government establishment of religion.
Many conservatives warn that if the states lose, the ruling would force the removal of similar objects from memorials and public spaces across America. Dozens of demonstrators are expected for rallies and prayers outside the courthouse in Washington (search) while the case is argued inside.
As he strolls from the Texas Supreme Court to the state Capitol, Thomas Van Orden (search) recounts the ominous e-mails that warn "we're gonna get you" and tell him to "get the hell out" if he can't support the American way of life.
Van Orden shrugs off the angry responses to his lawsuit seeking to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Capitol grounds. A Vietnam veteran and former lawyer who is now homeless, Van Orden says he already "went to hell" and is still finding his way back.
Derided by some as an atheist, Van Orden says he's simply "not religious" despite growing up in the Methodist Church in East Texas and having a brief interest in the Unitarian Church as an adult.
"I have nothing against the Ten Commandments. I grew up with the Ten Commandments," he said. "I didn't sue Christianity or Judaism. I sued the government. It was filed to uphold the principles of the First Amendment."
Supporters of keeping the monument on the Capitol grounds say the traditions of Western law are rooted in the Ten Commandments. America can't scrub the role of religion from its history, said Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Legal Institute, which defends religious freedoms and First Amendment rights and filed briefs in support of keeping the monument.
"What they're really advocating on the other side is a religious cleansing from our history," Shackelford said. "It should be treated with respect as our part of history, not some new form of pornography that has to be banned from our public arena."
The Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the Texas monument in 1961 and gave scores of similar monuments to towns across the United States.
Van Orden acknowledges the role religion has played in law but believes most people view the Ten Commandments from a religious perspective, not a historical one.
State Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Catholic who keeps a photograph in his office showing him meeting Pope John Paul II, will defend the Texas monument.
"I hope and believe the United States Supreme Court is not going to force agnosticism upon the people of this state and this country," Abbott said. "The First Amendment was never intended to remove all religious expression from the public square."
Abbott noted the U.S. Supreme Court's marble courtroom also has a carving of Moses holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
Van Orden rejects that comparison, noting the carving also shows other historical lawgivers, including Hammurabi, Confucius and Muhammed, as well as the secular figures Napoleon and Caesar Augustus.
Van Orden said he wouldn't have sued if the Texas Capitol grounds paid similar homage to historical figures.
The case has brought Van Orden a modicum of fame as the "homeless lawyer," a pauper who maneuvered through a complex legal system all the way to the highest court in the land.
"From a West Austin bush to the United States Supreme Court," Van Orden said. "That's pretty cool."
Yet he's vexed that news reports have paid as much attention to him as his case.
He generally refuses to discuss his background or why his law license was suspended several times for issues ranging from taking money for work he didn't perform to failure to pay fines. He is around 60 years old but won't give his age.
He told The Washington Post that depression cost him his practice and his family. In 1995, the State Bar ordered that a psychiatrist or psychologist certify whether he was mentally capable of practicing law. Although his license remains suspended, Van Orden still has the taste and sharp mind for practicing law.
In 2002, he personally argued his Commandments case before a federal judge, and he did it again before an appeals court in New Orleans.
Before the Supreme Court, however, his case will be argued by Duke University law professor and First Amendment scholar Erwin Chemerinsky.
Van Orden is undecided about whether to go to Washington for the arguments.
"It takes money to go to Washington," Van Orden said.