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More courts tackle 'tablets'

Less than a year after a federal judge ordered that a 2 1/2-ton Ten Commandments monument be removed from Alabama's state courts building, legal battles have sprung up across the nation between civil liberties groups who are targeting similar monuments and governments that are determined to display them.

Two dozen lawsuits that allege that such monuments amount to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion are in play in state and federal courts, say lawyers who monitor such cases.

Many of the lawsuits have been brought by affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and other groups. Some were inspired by the conflict in Alabama, in which the state's chief justice was ousted in November after he refused the order to remove the monument.

In a few cases, towns and small cities are adopting novel tactics to ward off legal challenges to monuments that have stood for decades. Some governments have deeded the public property on which the monuments stand to private groups, in hope of avoiding lawsuits.

Meanwhile, a school board in Adams County, Ohio, has asked the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court order that it remove the Ten Commandments from school displays of seminal legal documents, including the Declaration of Independence and Magna Carta. The high court is likely to decide later this month whether to take the case.

There are perhaps as many as 4,000 Ten Commandments markers that were erected in public spaces during the 1950s and 1960s as part of a Fraternal Order of Eagles project to encourage law-abiding behavior.

Some of the monuments were dedicated as a promotion for the 1956 film "The Ten Commandments," in ceremonies that featured movie stars Charlton Heston (who played Moses) and Yul Brynner (Pharaoh).

"I won't say that this story has biblical overtones — OK, I will," says Francis Manion, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a public interest law firm that is defending monuments in several cases. "The (lawsuits) have really taken off — a flood, if you will — in just the past couple of years."

Monument opponents say that America's increased diversity accounts for many of the lawsuits.

"The religious motivation (of the monuments) was not as obvious when there weren't as many religious minorities or people with no religion," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The lawsuits are occurring "because (opponents) now feel they have a shot at winning. But the cases are a declaration that (the monuments are) important, too."

A case heard by a federal appeals court in St. Louis reflects the issues in many of the disputes.

On one side, John Doe, an unidentified atheist and ACLU member in rural Nebraska, says that the Ten Commandments monument in a park in the town of Plattsmouth "alienates" him and makes him feel like a "second-class citizen," according to court papers. The monument — a 5-foot granite slab presented by the Eagles in 1965 — amounts to "Judeo-Christian" religious instruction, Doe argues.

Doe, who filed suit anonymously to try to avoid a backlash in the town of 6,800, has won in a lower court.

But Plattsmouth argues that because the Ten Commandments form the basis for Western legal systems, the monument is a secular symbol and not a religious icon. Manion, who argued for the town before the appeals court, calls the Commandments the "cultural matrix from which this country springs."

He also says the obscure location of the Plattsmouth monument — in a corner of a public park — indicates that it was not intend to promote religion.

Courts have come down on both sides of the issue. In Colorado and Texas, federal appeals courts have said that such monuments are acceptable on public land. In Indiana and Kentucky, similar courts have ordered them removed.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never accepted a Ten Commandments monument case. In 1980, the court said that posting the Commandments in a public school classroom was unconstitutional.

The court seems to have said "that government has no business promoting religion by putting scrolls in public places," says Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, a group that tracks trends in constitutional law. Today, "there's only a minority of justices up there who think that isn't a violation."