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Next church-state dispute: 'In God We Trust'

A case challenging a display of the national motto is one of many battles over religious references in public places.

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The words appear on every dollar bill and US coin. They are displayed at the entrance to the US Senate and above the Speaker's chair in the House.

But when local officials in North Carolina placed "In God We Trust" on the front of the Davidson County Government Center, they soon found themselves in federal court facing a complaint that they were violating the separation of church and state.

The display was mounted in 18-inch letters that passing motorists could see on nearby Interstate 85. "If you are going to get sued, you may as well get sued for big letters," says Larry Potts, vice chairman of the Davidson County Commission.

The case is one of an array of church-state battles across the country seeking to establish a bedrock answer to a difficult constitutional question: To what extent may the government bring God into the public square?

It is more than crosses, crèches, and menorahs. Last year the US Supreme Court considered whether repeating the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment's prohibition of government establishment of religion. And the justices are currently weighing the constitutionality of displaying the Ten Commandments on public property in Texas and Kentucky. Decisions in the Ten Commandments cases could come as early as Monday, or, at the latest, by the end of next month.

Legal scholars are hopeful the Ten Commandments opinions will provide a legal landmark, offering lower courts more precise guidelines to help judges resolve the growing number of church-state disputes.

At the center of the debate is whether the Constitution demands strict separation between church and state or whether it provides leeway to permit government acknowledgment of America's religious heritage. Others go further, saying the First Amendment bars establishment of a government-backed church but says nothing about government efforts to promote religiosity and faith-based morality.

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