Indiana is among nine states seeking a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on how the Ten Commandments can legally be displayed on public property.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Nov. 12 upheld the legality of a Ten Commandments display at the state capital in Texas. Opponents are appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, said Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter.
But the 7th Circuit barred Indiana from erecting a similar monument on the Statehouse lawn.
The Texas case “is very relevant to a situation we had in Indiana," Carter told the Terre Haute, Ind., Tribune-Star on July 7. "There needs to be better guidance provided for state and local governments as to what appropriate displays of the Ten Commandments are acceptable. This is a great opportunity for the Court to take this issue and provide some guidance."
The Indiana monument also was to include the Bill of Rights and the preamble to the 1851 Indiana Constitution. The project would have replaced a similar Statehouse monument vandalized in 1991. Carter said the monument was a symbol of Indiana history and recognizes religion.
The Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in May 2000 against former Gov. Frank O'Bannon after he accepted a donation from the Indiana Limestone Institute to build the monument. The Supreme Court refused to hear that case, O'Bannon v. Indiana Civil Liberties Union.
Other counties in Indiana also have been ordered to dismantle their Ten Commandments displays.
"We now have a split in the circuits throughout the country," Carter said. "We have different law in different parts of the country, and that is an appropriate time for the Supreme Court to take a case and resolve that conflict."
The high court is adjourned until October. Carter said he would know by the end of this year if the court will hear the Texas case.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, fights over the religious document in courthouses also are going strong.
Two Georgia counties have installed Ten Commandments displays in their courthouses in the past week, ignoring lawsuits in other counties. Says Henry County commissioner Gerry Adams: "I don't see anything wrong with saying you ought not be killin' or stealin'."
On July 6, Henry County commissioners voted 5-0 to put a framed Ten Commandments poster in the entrance of a new courthouse. A similar display was installed in a courthouse last week in Cherokee County, in Atlanta's northern suburbs.
That brings to at least five the number of Georgia counties that have placed Ten Commandments markers in their courthouses in recent years. One of those counties, Habersham, obeyed a federal judge's order and took down its two displays last November. The rest are still up, although some currently face legal challenges.
Dozens more county governments in Georgia are considering Ten Commandments displays, said Ray McBerry, state chairman for the League of the South, a heritage group that paid for Henry County's poster.
McBerry called the Ten Commandments trend a direct reaction to last summer's battle by former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore to show the holy rules in courthouses. The marker was removed last August, and Moore was ousted from the court for refusing to obey a federal ruling calling for its removal.
"Those of us who are native Southerners have had all we're going to take of the cultural wars that are being waged on our traditional values," McBerry said.
In Henry, the most recent county to wade into the Ten Commandments debate, Adams said he didn't have to think too hard before voting to allow the display.
"I'm not intimidated by a lawsuit," he said. "It's logical to me that if our legal and criminal system is loosely based on the Ten Commandments, why is it wrong to show it? It's not a defiant act."
Legal watchers call the Ten Commandments trend a natural exploration of a shady area in constitutional law.
John Witte, a law professor at Emory University and expert on the separation of church and state, said it was unclear whether the recent county displays would withstand court challenges.
The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on a public religious display since 1989, Witte said, and the question of whether a Ten Commandments poster implies government endorsement of religion is complicated. (The 1989 case, Allegheny v. ACLU, cocerned a crèche.)
Governments can insulate themselves from lawsuits by surrounding the Ten Commandments with secular documents such as the Declaration of Independence, and the question can also depend on where in a courthouse the Ten Commandments are shown.
County officials that vote to show the Ten Commandments "are trying to test the edges of what's appropriate," Witte said.
"Some see this as a right-wing conspiracy to inject religion into public life, and it may be that, but it's also the acceptance of an invitation by the Supreme Court that we want to leave these things to lower courts," he said.
A few lawmakers in the Georgia House tried to clarify the matter last winter, but a bill never made it to a vote.
The bill would have forced the state to pick up legal tabs from courthouse Ten Commandments challenges as long as the local governments agreed to display the document along with other secular writings. It was thought the bill's passage would embolden more counties to show the Ten Commandments.
Adams said he wasn't worried about the lack of a state rule or clear court ruling defining when a Ten Commandments display is legal.
"It's kind of a no-brainer thing to me," Adams said. "I don't see what it could possibly harm."