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Supreme Court splits on Ten Commandments

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In a major showdown over the presentation of religious symbols and sacred text on public property, the US Supreme Court has made it somewhat easier for government officials to justify displays like the Ten Commandments.

But at the same time, the nation's highest court put officials on notice that their motives must be clearly secular for such displays to pass constitutional muster.

In two important church-state rulings announced Monday, the high court upheld a Ten Commandments display in Texas, but struck down one in Kentucky.

The rulings came on a busy final day of the US Supreme Court's 2004-2005 term that included no announced retirement by any justice. Many analysts say an announcement could come at any time.

In one Ten Commandments case the court said an outdoor public presentation of the Decalogue among other monuments on the Texas State Capitol grounds in Austin did not amount to an unconstitutional government promotion of religion.

The majority justices said that while the Texas display was an acknowledgment of a sacred religious text by the government, the public exhibit did not cross the line into impermissible proselytizing. The vote in the Texas case was 5 to 4.

Setting the stage for church-state litigation

But the high court reached a different conclusion in a Kentucky case involving a Ten Commandments display on the wall of two county courthouses.

The justices ruled 5 to 4 that public officials were not motivated by a necessary secular purpose in ordering the courthouse display. Instead the majority ruled that government officials in the Kentucky case had acted in a way that sought to advance religion in violation of the separation of church and state.

The swing vote determining the outcome in both cases was Justice Stephen Breyer.

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