WASHINGTON – Stepping again into the cultural struggle over the separation of church and state, the Supreme Court said Tuesday that it would decide whether monuments to the Ten Commandments violated the Constitution when they were placed in public buildings.

It’s a somewhat surprising decision, given the justices’ reluctance to tackle the issue for nearly 15 years, but it appears they could avoid it no longer.

In the past few years, dozens of lower courts have been forced to debate the issue and have failed to produce uniform results. Most recently, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore became the center of a frenzied debate over the issue when he refused to remove a monument from the courthouse in Montgomery.

The justices took two cases Tuesday – one from Kentucky, another from Texas – that give them the opportunity to decide the issue once and for all. Their rulings, expected by July, should determine when, where and how religious symbols can permeate public spaces, and either could endorse or rebuke the push by conservative Christian groups for more public recognition of religious values.

“I think it’s clear these cases are going to be the bookends of this Ten Commandments issue,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a public interest law firm that’s advocated for greater acceptance of government associations with religion. “I think we’ll get comprehensive rulings, very fact-specific, about the parameters for displaying these monuments legally.”

Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, hopes for even more.

“I’d prefer something that doesn’t flip-flop on the idea that the Ten Commandments are a religious statement that belongs in sacred spaces, but not in government buildings,” he said.

Lynn compared the two cases with a 1980 ruling in which the justices narrowly decided that a Kentucky law that required public schools to post the commandments in classrooms was unconstitutional. “I hope they come up with another broad rule here.”

It’s not just the future of religious monuments that’s at stake; it’s also a historical dispute over the nation’s founding. Proponents of the monuments long have maintained that they reflect a strong tie between religious law and the country’s birth, that the Ten Commandments are the very basis for our legal system.

Opponents disagree, pointing to the First Amendment’s prohibition against church and state entanglement and other dissimilarities between the Constitution and the commandments.

Since the last time the court considered this issue, in the 1980 ruling, it’s outlawed official prayers at public school graduations and said states couldn’t be forced to pay for students’ religious training. It’s also approved public school-voucher programs that send money to religious institutions, and ducked an opportunity last year to decide whether the words “under God” should be in the Pledge of Allegiance when schoolchildren are asked to recite it.

The cases the court took Tuesday present different facets of the Ten Commandments disputes.

In Kentucky, two counties put framed copies of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses and a third put them in schools. When seven residents, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued to have them removed, the counties amended the displays to include other historical documents, saying that dulled their religious intent.

Still, a federal judge issued an injunction against the displays and an appeals court upheld it, saying they amounted to a government endorsement of religious beliefs.

The Texas case centers on a monument, similar to the one that caused Moore’s troubles, on the state Capitol’s grounds but outside the public buildings there. A homeless man sued to have it removed, but a federal judge and an appeals court rebuffed his complaints, saying the monument served a secular purpose.

The high court can clear up the discrepancy between the lower-court rulings, and establish clearer lines between acceptable and unacceptable displays, Sekulow said.

“I would hope they’ll deal with the difference between displays inside public buildings and ones outside,” he said. “And I would hope they’ll draw some distinctions between school buildings and courthouses or Capitol grounds. This is a critical opportunity for the high court to clarify one of the most confusing areas of church-state law.”

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