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Monumental clash over Ten Commandments

A trial examines whether a judge's decision to display a stone tablet at a courthouse violates church-state divide.

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Not since the state of Tennessee tried John Scopes for teaching evolution in 1925 has so much of an American court's time been spent debating the meaning of words ascribed to God.

This time the issue in federal court did not involve evolution, but revolved around the actions of a controversial yet popular small-town lawyer, Roy Moore, who managed to win election as chief justice of the state Supreme Court in 2000, without the benefit of the Republican Party apparatus. His campaign was based not so much on his qualifications for office, as his fight to keep the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, and his political ads referred to him as "the Ten Commandments judge."

Not long after winning with the support of Southern Baptists, Judge Moore teamed up with a sculptor and designed a two-ton carved stone monument of the Ten Commandments.

In the dark of night and without the approval of other members of the state's highest court, or even the building superintendent, Moore erected the tablets in the lobby – he says to make an important point about the moral foundation of American law.

The monument is such a hit with some Christians that many have arrived by the busload to view it, with some kneeling and pray before it like a holy shrine.

But this triumph for Moore and many religious adherents has stirred up more than a few tablets-full of legal trouble. To critics, the monument represents a direct affront to the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion. The controversy, winding through seven days of courtroom testimony that concluded Tuesday, promises to test the limits of trend toward greater prominence for religion in American public life.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, put collective prayer in the spotlight. President Bush has proved to be one of nation's most openly religious presidents. And for years, school officials in many Bible Belt states have sought to hang the Ten Commandments on the wall.


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