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Moses and City Hall

When engraved stone tablets were proliferating on civic front lawns in the mid 1950s (in planned tandem with the premiere of Hollywood's "The Ten Commandments"), few anticipated the legal battles they would eventually touch off.

But like the commandments themselves, the US Constitution is a living document. Its bar against any law "respecting an establishment of religion" has progressively been interpreted to forbid the display of specifically religious material in or on the grounds of public buildings.

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That interpretation held this week when the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling against a Ten Commandments monument outside the Elkhart, Ind., Municipal Building.

In an unusual move, the three justices who wanted to hear the case issued a dissent. They argued that the commandments are part of the foundation of Western law, and thus have a secular as well as religious meaning.

That may well be. But the "I am the Lord thy God" lead-in on the Elkhart monument, as well as the text of the Mosaic law itself, makes the religious context and intent clear.

In past cases involving posting the commandments in public-school classrooms, the element of forcing one religious tradition - the Judeo-Christian one - on an increasingly diverse public, was clear. The setting is different in Elkhart, but the church-state principle is constant.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor