Published March 3, 2005
WASHINGTON - When the Supreme Court justices consider whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed on government property, they will do so under the watchful eyes of Moses.
The Jewish lawgiver is depicted several times in the stone and marble edifice that is the Supreme Court building, and so are the Ten Commandments. In sculpture, Moses sits as the prominent figure atop the building's east side, holding two tablets representing the Ten Commandments. And on the wall directly behind the chief justice's chair, an allegorical "Majesty of Law" places his muscular left arm on a tablet depicting the Roman numerals I through X.
Believers are convinced those are indeed the commandments given to Moses as described in the biblical Book of Exodus. Others say the 10 numbers represent the Bill of Rights.
Even before Cecile B. DeMille made Moses and Charlton Heston household names, the Supreme Court and other government buildings featured the famous lawgiver and his law.
"He's all over the state capitols; you run into Moses everywhere," said Francis Manion, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal advocacy group. "Until five years ago, it was not at all controversial to make the point that Moses and the Ten Commandments are the fundamental sources of our legal system."
It will be plenty controversial on March 2, the day the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments challenging whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed on public property without violating the Constitution. Groups that argue for the right to display such symbols have pointed out that the court's own architecture - along with other government buildings in the nation's capital - are festooned with religious imagery.
"They are more than just symbols, they are history," said Catherine Millard, founder of Christian Heritage Tours, which shows tourists where they can find such government depictions of religion in Washington.
Religious symbols appear so often that it takes Christian Heritage Tours three days to show visitors all the biblical references on buildings ranging from the Library of Congress to the Capitol itself.
Advocates of church-state separation argue that such displays are just art, and are not to be taken religiously. But that's exactly the way believers such as Millard, author of The Rewriting of America's History, take them.
She points out that Moses appears eight times in carvings that ring the Supreme Court Great Hall ceiling. His face is presented along with other ancient figures such as Solomon, the Greek god Zeus and the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva.
Tablets representing the Ten Commandments can be found carved in the oak courtroom doors, on the support frame of the courtroom's bronze gates and in the library woodwork.
Perhaps the most controversial image is the one that sits directly above the chief justice's head. In the center of the 40-foot-long Spanish marble carving is a tablet displaying Roman numerals I through X, with some numbers partially hidden.
Millard, a Christian who grew up in South Africa and has spent 20 years researching Christianity's role in U.S. history, says the tablet represents the biblical commandments.
She saved a copy of a 1975 Supreme Court guidebook referring to the sculpture as the Ten Commandments.
However, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Court says the tablet represents the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights, citing a letter from the original sculptor, Adolph Weinman.
"There is correspondence from the sculptor identifying it as the tablet of the 10 amendments," Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said. "The letter is a part of the collection of the Archives of American Art."
But Weinman's letter, written in October 1932, is unsigned, and Millard says that makes it untrustworthy.
"Where's the evidence?" she said. "I'm a scholar, I was taught by all my professors to stick to facts."
Another sculpture by Weinman appears in downtown Washington near the Ronald Reagan building, representing religious freedom. In the bronze statue, a woman is leaning on a tablet that looks similar to the one above the Supreme Court bench. That tablet has been referred to as the commandments.
Capitol religious references
The Capitol building, the home of Congress, is also filled with religion-related displays.
The words "Jesus Christ" appear upside-down on an open Bible in a painting in the Capitol Rotunda, the room where President Reagan lay in state last summer. In that same painting, called "Embarkation of the Pilgrims," the words "God with us" appear in the upper left corner.
Another rotunda painting depicts the baptism of Pocahontas and another contains a cross.
Many of the figures in Statuary Hall are outspoken Christians such as Washington state's missionary Marcus Whitman and Jason Lee of Oregon.
In the House of Represen-tatives chamber, a bas-relief sculpture of Moses faces the House speaker's chair. The other 22 bas-relief faces are profiles, looking toward Moses in the center. "In God We Trust" is inscribed above the door to the Senate and behind the Speaker of the House's chair. Whether religious symbols are prohibited by the Constitution may hinge on the intent of the sculptors, and whether the sculptures promote religion or preserve history.
"Fools" to overlook influence
"We'd be ignorant fools to pretend that religion, and specifically this religion, has not had an enormous influence on the determinants of our culture and particularly our legal system," the ACLJ's Manion said.
But Barry Lynn, head of the Washington-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said that the Supreme Court carvings are "wildly different" from the controversial 6-foot statue of the Ten Commandments in a Texas courthouse that the justices will consider March 2.
"This is simply an art element in a presentation of the history of law."
Lynn, whose organization opposes religious symbols on public land, said he doesn't believe that the art is in danger.
"We're not going to have to sandblast the friezes off the Supreme Court if the Supreme Court decides that a judge in Kentucky or a community in Texas can't display in an overt fashion a specific version of the Ten Commandments," he said.
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