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The Federal Courts, a Menorah, and the Ten Commandments

Whose Religious Iconography Is Constitutional?

A recent phenomenon in the United States is that no one knows any longer to what extent the country, our states, or our municipalities can participate in the display of such traditional religious symbols as crèches, crosses, menorahs, or even the Ten Commandments.  Until the last half of the 20th century, no one seemed too concerned about the problem.  Then—while retooling the Constitution with regard to criminal procedure, reapportionment, and racial segregation—the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, declared, for the first time in U.S. history, that it was impermissible for states or municipalities to mandate Bible reading or prayer in public-school classrooms.  The Supreme Court’s rationale was that the First Amendment, which prohibited Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” ought to be interpreted as forbidding any state or local government from imposing any religion on its citizens.  The amendment, declared the Court, quoting an 1802 letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut, erects a “wall of separation” between Church and State.  

There has been a spate of recent writing on the history of the First Amendment and on Church-State relations in the early republic.  Even the academy is beginning to understand that Jefferson’s view was not commonly shared, and, more...

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