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Religion embedded in U.S. society, government, courts

- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

Americans pledge allegiance to "one nation under God." U.S. currency says "In God We Trust." Congress opens each day's work with a prayer, including this recent exaltation: "Blessed is the nation whose God is Lord."

Even the high court that decides how much God can be in public lives starts off each session with, "God save the United States and this honorable court," and displays a frieze that includes a depiction of Moses as the lawgiver, holding tablets bearing the Ten Commandments.

Religious concepts, symbols and words will continue to be embedded in the government, the courts and other public places, whatever the outcome of the battle over the Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama state Judicial Building.

God is in the details -- even the grand designs -- of the republic. Some of the expressions of religion are widely accepted as part of American traditions, as when a president takes office with the oath, "So help me God."

Others -- school prayer, Christian symbols in town squares, President Bush's turn to religious charities for social services -- bring on pitched legal battles or at least a feisty debate over the separation of church and state.

Members of Congress who engage in that debate do so after a prayerful beginning to their day. A recent prayer in the Senate asked, "Fill our God-shaped void with your presence and bid our striving to cease."

On the same day in the House, members bowed their heads to the plea that "You, Lord, will lead, guide and direct them in their affairs."

Throughout the country, state courthouses are decorated with religious art -- although nothing quite like the 5,300-pound granite monument that made its debut in Alabama about two years ago and reignited the debate over when God is welcome in public places.

Alabama's associate Supreme Court justices ordered the Ten Commandments monument removed from the rotunda of the state judicial building Thursday, despite Chief Justice Roy Moore's fiery defense of the granite marker. The U.S. Supreme Court has said it would not stay the removal, and Justice Moore has promised he would appeal.

There has been some allowance for references to God in older symbols of the nation.

"Over the last 200 years, our conception of what's appropriate separation has changed," said David Campbell, who teaches political science at the University of Notre Dame. These are mere "vestiges" of a past when religion and government were more entangled.

While God is notable in many places, in courtrooms it's a very delicate matter, said John Langan, professor of ethics at Georgetown University.

"People feel very vulnerable there," he said. "They need reassurance they won't be discriminated against and that their values will be taken seriously."

But, Mr. Langan said, people don't consider religious words or signs on currency a real threat.

"You buy the same things with the money whether it has the same message or not," Mr. Langan said.