Religious Displays to Be Debated In Court

December 22, 2008

Author: Joanna Lin

Source: The Los Angeles Times,0,6622730.story

Whether the issue is a Nativity scene in a town square or the Ten Commandments at a city hall, Americans never seem to tire of debating whether public displays of religion are constitutional. Year after year, courts give their blessings to some displays and the ax to others.

After more than 200 years debating the 1st Amendment, why haven't we found consensus?

"There aren't a lot of clear, bright defining lines when it comes to questions about religious displays," said David Masci, a senior research fellow in religion and law at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The amendment states that government "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," but how does that concern a menorah in a city park?

Since the Supreme Court began reviewing public religious displays in 1980, the justices have sometimes seemed to "zig zag" on the issue, Masci said.

"You've got nine different people with nine different views on this," he said. "What that leads to appears to be, at times, a kind of muddled jurisprudence."

Still, most cases do not reach the high court.

Lower courts rule with "an eye toward the precedents set by the Supreme Court" but must consider the complexities and context of each case individually, said Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law professor at UCLA.

And given the amount of religious diversity in America, new cases are sure to arise.

"New ones will come even as old ones are resolved," Masci said.

As the year comes to a close, here's a look at some of the cases California courts will ponder in the new year.