I think the recent rulings by the Supreme Court have been largely incoherent. They ruled wrong (by deciding not to rule) in the appeals of Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller. Their green-light to governments to use and abuse the right of eminent domain is troubling: okay in theory, but likely to mean far more wealthy developers given the opportunity to move poor people out of their homes at a deep discount. But it's the distinction in the Ten Commandments cases that I really don't get.
I haven't seen the contexts of the Texas display of the Ten Commandments (allowed) and the Kentucky display (disallowed). And maybe it's just Stephen Breyer who's confused, because he was the deciding vote in both 5-4 decisions. But the distinctions as the contexts are described seem very slight.
George Will with whose writing I have a love-hate relationship, because he obviously thinks things through and isn't just skimming Bartlett's, he actually puts things into some historical context, but he so often comes to the wrong conclusion, or confuses the trees for the forest had an interesting column that showed how many of the same people who ratified the First Amendment thought it applied (or didn't) when it came to the employment of chaplains and the use of government spaces for religious worship when not otherwise occupied, and other such matters that would obviously be a problem today. In doing so, of course, he misses the larger point, but his history is interesting, nonetheless.
The larger point is...what is the point? I mean, really? What do people really think they are accomplishing by posting the Ten Commandments in a courthouse or on the grounds of a state capitol, except to thumb their nose at fellow citizens who take offense at religious references in public life? It's not as if some atheist ever saw such a display and thought, "Well, there you go. I will henceforth no longer covet my neighbor's ass." (Gym memberships will plummet, which can't help the local economy, but that's an ancillary effect, at most.)
This isn't just a facetious critique of such reasoning. The Ten Commandments placed on the Texas state capitol grounds were apparently donated, according to the New York Times, "by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a national civic organization, in the 1950's and 1960's. According to the Eagles at the time, exposing the nation's youth to the Ten Commandments would lead to a decrease in juvenile delinquency." It did not apparently work for a certain future Texas governor and president, but I haven't seen the overall statistics for juvenile delinquency in Texas comparing the pre-Commandments and post-Commandments periods, so I couldn't say how successful their efforts were. I have, however, my suspicions.
This is, of course, the main argument behind most attempts to introduce the Ten Commandments or prayer into public spaces like schools, courthouses, and capitols. Yes, the country has a long history of keeping a "wall" between church and state, but that's even while the state works to seduce, co-opt, and exploit religion. For example, Moses and Maimonides are two of the 23 marble-relief faces that have adorned the House of Representatives chamber since 1951. (As a congressional page one summer in the House, I heard the tour guides spiel almost every day, and remember this end of the description of these bas-reliefs: "There are only two Americans, [motion left of the rostrum] Thomas Jefferson and [motion right] George Mason.") They're there as historical "lawgivers," which happens to belie the Jewish scriptures in which Moses didn't actually "give" the Law, but received it from Someone Else. However, the rationale for these hovering heads is that what with Moses, Mason, Edward I, Justinian, Hammurabi, and several others staring down at them our representatives in Congress have a weighty professional tradition to uphold.
My own objection to government displays of religion has very little to do with my being a citizen although I do think no citizen should be compelled to be complicit, through their taxes, participation, or presence, in another's religious expression and everything to do with being a Christian. I hate the watered-down version of faith that passes for public expressions of it. When I pray, I tend to be effusive, or angry, or laughing, or distraught, or suffering from an anomie that results in tearful pleas, loud impatient sighs, and sometimes real relief. At some level, explicitly or implicitly, I'm aware that I'm praying "in Jesus' name" that God the Father hears my prayers as if they were prayed by the Son himself. I think this is why I love the Book of Common Prayer: it's like a power plant that protects, contains and directs an otherwise powerful and even potentially destructive energy. It can sound cold and formal to people not used to liturgical worship, I'm sure. But I know my fellow Anglicans know whereof I speak.
To bring this back to the issue of the Ten Commandments on display in Texas and Kentucky: As a Christian, I don't like the diluted version or worse, the bastardized version of my faith that occurs when it gets co-opted by the state. And as an American, I don't like the state establishing a religion or religious principles. As a Supreme Court justice, I'm not sure how I would have voted in these two cases, not having heard all the evidence or seen the contexts. But these latest rulings did nothing to give me any faith in the Supreme Court's ability to decide issues related to faith.