BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Next month, the Supreme Court considers whether it is constitutional to display the Ten Commandments on public property. It is an issue that has triggered strong emotions and competing opinions. A court in Kentucky said that state cannot display the commandments. But a court in Texas said it's okay there. Tim O'Brien surveys the arguments and the people making them.
TIM O'BRIEN: The Ten Commandments have been on display at the Texas state capitol for more than 40 years -- one of dozens of such monuments donated to states and cities by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a national civic group.
Is the display an unconstitutional government promotion of religion? The question made headlines in another case two years ago when a federal court ordered Alabama's chief justice, Roy Moore, to remove this two-and-a-half-ton granite monument from the rotunda of the state supreme court. Moore refused and lost his job as a result. But courts in other cases have both allowed and disallowed the Ten Commandments on public property. The conflicting decisions have produced uncertainty over what states can do.
The U.S. Supreme Court has now agreed to settle the question in a challenge to the Texas display brought by Thomas Van Orden.
THOMAS VAN ORDEN (Plaintiff, VAN ORDEN V. PERRY): There's an old Jewish saying that is: "If not you, who? If not now, when?"
O'BRIEN: Van Orden, at least to some, is an unlikely plaintiff. Trained as a lawyer, he is broke. He lives in a tent in a city park. He has scrupulously avoided the news media who, he complains, are more interested in his personal problems than in any First Amendment issues. But Van Orden says he is "proud as hell" that on Wednesday, March 2, the country's highest court will take up his case.
Mr. VAN ORDEN: We have two religion clauses in the First Amendment. The second one guarantees to each of us -- each American citizen -- the right to exercise that person's religious belief as that person sees fit. But that right to exercise religious beliefs applies to us individually. It does not apply to government. Government, rather, is restricted by the establishment clause; it must stand neutral.
O'BRIEN: The Supreme Court has squarely considered the display of the Ten Commandments only once, in 1980, ordering school officials in Kentucky to remove them from public school classroom walls. Involving impressionable schoolchildren, that case is quite different from the one here in Texas. But what the court said about the Ten Commandments 25 years ago could still have a bearing in this case.
In finding that school officials had acted with a "plainly religious purpose," the justices said the commandments "are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths."
GREG ABBOTT (Texas Attorney General): Yeah, sure, it's a sacred religious text. But at the same time, there are important fundamental core values represented in the Ten Commandments that have been a very important part of the rich tradition and history of this state.
O'BRIEN: State Attorney General Greg Abbott will defend the Texas display in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mr. ABBOTT: You look at the context, and the context is a vast outdoor museum, and this is just one piece of that museum. All you have to do is look up the sidewalk, and you see countless other museum pieces. You see the Statue of Liberty; you see a monument to a pioneer woman in the state of Texas; you see monuments of Texas children.
Mr. VAN ORDEN: The Ten Commandments appear on the state capitol of Texas -- alone. It is the only code of conduct that appears to be endorsed by the state of Texas, but it is a religious code of conduct. It is sectarian. It applies only to Christianity and Judaism.