What we have here is a reindeer ruling

Readers who want a quick way to evaluate today's MSM coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the Ten Commandment cases can follow these simple directions. Go to Google News and type in the words "Ten Commandments," followed by the word "reindeer." This will help you find the reporters who listened carefully and realized that, in church-state studies terms, what we have here is another reindeer ruling.

And what, you ask, is that? Here is a clip from the Los Angeles Times report by David G. Savage that nails the crucial facts:

In the past, the court has struggled to decide disputes involving religious displays. Often, the outcome turned on trivial details. For example, the court in 1984 upheld a city's display of a manger scene during the Christmas season, but only because it included reindeer and colored lights. Several years later, it struck down a more solemn depiction of Christ's birth that sat during the Christmas season on the steps of Pittsburgh's City Hall.

In other words, public displays of religion are acceptable. However, they must feature a number of religious items displayed in such a way as to communicate that the various faiths are of equal truth and stature.

The tension is obvious. The goal is to show that all religions are equal in the eyes of the state. The problem is that it is hard to do this without drifting into a state-funded proclamation that all religions are equal in the eyes of God. Religious toleration is not the same thing as theological toleration. The state must avoid the latter because it is, well, a theological belief that cannot be backed with tax dollars.

A few newspapers caught the reindeer angle. Many did not. Washington Post columnist George Will dug into this angle in his op-ed piece, under the headline "Thou Shalt Split Hairs." The massive opening paragraph captures the mood felt by many church-state lawyers on both sides of this dispute:

The Supreme Court rendered two more hairsplitting, migraine-inducing decisions yesterday about when religious displays on public property do and do not violate the First Amendment protection against "establishment" of religion. In a case from Texas, where a Ten Commandments monument stands outside the state capitol, the court, splintered six ways from Sunday, said: We find no constitutional violation. The second case came from Kentucky, where the Commandments displayed in several courthouses are surrounded by historical symbols and documents -- e.g., copies of the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Star Spangled Banner -- to comply with the "reindeer rule," more about which anon. Yesterday the court recoiled from Kentucky's displays, saying, they are unconstitutionally motivated by a "predominately religious purpose." Not enough reindeer?

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