Whether the issue is a Nativity scene in a town square or the Ten Commandments at a city hall, Americans never seem to tire of debating whether public displays of religion are constitutional. Year after year, courts give their blessings to some displays and the ax to others.

Whether the issue is a Nativity scene in a town square or the Ten Commandments at a city hall, Americans never seem to tire of debating whether public displays of religion are constitutional. Year after year, courts give their blessings to some displays and the ax to others.

After more than 200 years debating the First Amendment, why haven't we found consensus?

"There aren't a lot of clear, bright defining lines when it comes to questions about religious displays," said David Masci, a senior research fellow in religion and law at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The amendment states that government "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," but how does that concern a menorah in a city park?

Since the Supreme Court began reviewing public religious displays in 1980, the justices have sometimes seemed to "zigzag" on the issue, Masci said.

"You've got nine different people with nine different views on this," he said. "What that leads to appears to be, at times, a kind of muddled jurisprudence."

Most cases do not reach the Supreme Court.

Lower courts rule with "an eye toward the precedents set by the Supreme Court" but must consider the complexities and context of each case individually, said Eugene Volokh, a constitutional-law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

And given the amount of religious diversity in America, new cases are sure to arise.

"New ones will come even as old ones are resolved," Masci said.

As the year comes to a close, here's a look at some of the cases California courts will ponder in the new year.



The players

Kevin Borden and the city of Modesto, Calif.

The issue

Whether Modesto denied Borden, a city resident, his rights of free speech and equal access to a public plaza outside a movie theater.

Borden, who preached in the plaza, alleges that theater security guards singled him out in barring access to the public area. The city says the plaza was de facto private property because the theater rented it.

Rulings

In November, U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii granted a motion allowing Borden to continue preaching as the case advances through court.

Next step

A trial date has not been set.



The players

Freedom from Religion Foundation and the city of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

The issue

Whether the city violated the foundation's free-speech rights by informing a billboard company of numerous complaints it had received about a billboard the group erected saying "Imagine No Religion." The billboard was taken down.

The foundation alleges that the city asked the company to remove the billboard.

Rulings

The foundation sued the city in November.

Next step

Case proceedings are pending the city's response to the lawsuit.



The players

Bradley Johnson and the Poway Unified School District in Poway, Calif.

The issue

Whether a teacher's First Amendment rights allow him to post banners reading "God Bless America" and "One Nation Under God" in his classroom. Johnson, a teacher at Westview High School in San Diego County, Calif., had banners up for two decades before the school principal last year ordered him to take them down, saying they made an impermissible Judeo-Christian statement to students.

Rulings

In September, U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez denied Poway's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Benitez said the banners were patriotic expressions deeply rooted in U.S. history and noted that other teachers had decorated their classrooms with Tibetan prayer rugs and posters with Buddhist and Islamic messages.

Next step

Parties met Friday with a court magistrate to discuss potential scheduling of the litigation.



The players

Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, various individuals, the city of San Diego, the United States and the Mount Soledad Memorial Association.

The issue

Whether a 43-foot cross on Mount Soledad in San Diego is a religious symbol has been debated for nearly 20 years. The cross marks a war memorial that was on city land until 2006, when the federal government took the site by eminent domain. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that regardless of ownership or the intent of the memorial, having the cross on government land is unconstitutional.

Rulings

U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns ruled in July that the cross could remain. Courts previously have ruled that the cross is unconstitutional.

Next step

Plaintiffs appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court, which they estimate could issue a ruling by the end of next year.

The players

Esperanza High School students and the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District.

The issue

Whether equal-access law guarantees students the right to form a Bible club at a public school. School officials in May prevented students at Esperanza High in Anaheim, Calif., from starting the club, arguing that only curriculum-related groups were allowed on campus.

Rulings

U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney in August issued a preliminary injunction that requires the school to allow the Bible club to form. The ruling stands until the case goes to trial.

Next step

Scheduling for the case will begin in February.