High court evades ‘In God’ issue

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday sidestepped a dispute over the constitutionality of putting “In God We Trust” on government buildings.

Earlier this year justices were splintered on the appropriateness of Ten Commandments displays in and near government buildings.

The court did not comment in rejecting an appeal over an “In God We Trust” inscription on the Davidson County Government Center in Lexington, N.C.

The inscription, in 18-inch block letters, was paid for with donations from individuals and churches in 2002. It is more prominent than the name of the building, according to opponents.

Charles F. Lambeth Jr. and Michael D. Lea, two lawyers who regularly practice in the North Carolina center, filed the lawsuit.

A panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that “In God We Trust” appears on the nation’s coins and was made the national motto by Congress.

“In this situation, the reasonable observer must be deemed aware of the patriotic uses, both historical and present, of the phrase ‘In God We Trust,’ ” the court ruled.

George Daly, the Charlotte, N.C., attorney for opponents of the inscription, told justices in a filing that ” ‘In God We Trust’ is the national motto, but it is also a religious creed, a statement of communal religious belief.”

James Morgan Jr., the county’s attorney, said that Ten Commandments displays are different from “In God We Trust” which has “been displayed for decades on government buildings and on the coins and paper money.”

The case is Lambeth v. Board of Commissioners of Davidson County, 05-203.

•Meanwhile, the court ruled Monday that parents who demand better special education programs for their children have the burden of proof in the challenges.

Retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the 6-2 court, said that when parents challenge a program they have the burden in an administrative hearing of showing that the program is insufficient. If schools bring a complaint, the burden rests with them, O’Connor wrote.

The ruling is a loss for a Maryland family that contested the special education program designed for their son with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The case required the court to interpret the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which does not specifically say whether parents or schools have the burden of proof in disputes. The law covers more than 6 million students.

The Maryland family in the Supreme Court case had argued that when there are disagreements between schools and parents, education officials have better access to relevant facts and witnesses.

The Bush administration backed the Montgomery County, Md., school district, which maintained that the extra requirement would be expensive for local schools.

Chief Justice John Roberts had recused himself from the case, because attorneys from his old law firm represented the school district in suburban Washington.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer wrote separate dissents.

O’Connor said the court was not ruling on a separate issue, whether states could set their own policies and put the burden on the school officials.

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