While the president was urging Congress to approve the 20,000 troop mission to Bosnia and the two parties were hoping to agree on a budget so as not to shutdown the government again in two weeks, the Supreme Court was back in action beginning to deliver rulings on cases it has been pondering for some time, quite often a year or two.

And I was reading about the court's making a strange request of the state of Colorado. How would it defend itself against the charge that it had no right to display a four foot high stone monument, which has chiselled – I guess chiselled – on it the Ten Commandments. Why not? Well thereby hangs years and years of a never resolved argument about how much religion, any religion, can intrude on, how can I put it, the public life of the United States?

Anyway, I was in the midst of this intriguing item sitting in a cafe doing no harm, staying strictly within the diet that has guaranteed my longevity so far – open toasted tuna sandwich and a double chocolate milkshake – when the waitress – she was a female but the menu described her as a "waitperson" – delivered my bill and I fished out a dollar bill for the tip. Because what I was reading coincided with a glance at the dollar bill, it flashed a comical, not to say hilarious association that will become clear as we go along.

I mentioned the other week, the great seal of the United States and its famous motto or device: "E Pluribus Unum," out of many, one, which may not sound as inspiring as "for Queen and country" or "Deutschland über alles" but it expresses in three words an immense idea or ideal for which 200,000 men laid down their lives in a civil war. And if that statement sounds at first a touch mysterious, let me remind you what the civil war was all about. It can best be done in the fewest words by Lincoln himself: If I could free all the slaves and save the Union I would do it. And if I could free some slaves and not others and save the Union I would do it. And if I could free no slaves and save the Union I would do that. The thing is to save the Union.

Well those fateful three words were starting at me from the dollar bill, the commonest bit of currency in America. For to the right of the huge printed denomination, "one" is reproduced the great seal, with a picture of the American bald eagle – an endangered tribe by the way – carrying in its talons the arrows of war and the olive branch of peace, in its mouth is a ribbon bearing the device we all know and quote all the time: "E Pluribus Unum".

But on the left side of the word "one" is printed the reverse emblem of the seal which we never talk about at all: it shows an unfinished pyramid and then in a dazzling white glow, the top of the pyramid is completed with an inset eye, a rather terrifying single eye. No wonder, it is the eye of God! And just to make the message clear, printed in bold letters under the phrase, "The United States of America" is a declaration, a confession I'd say, which is also printed on every other denomination of the paper currency, 10 dollar bills, 20, 50, 100, it says, "In God we trust." Now these pictures, symbols, religious declarations, have been there for I don't know how long. The design, as I've described, it was approved by Congress and adopted in 1782 and here it is every time you reach for money. In a nation in which the Supreme Court by a thumping majority has banned the recital of prayers or Bible verses in the public schools as a violation of the Constitution's line: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

Now of course in the late 18th century when that was written, establishment meant, setting up an institution, as in, the established church. I think this little niggle is necessary to mention because about 40 years ago an English correspondent in Washington invented a new usage for the word establishment, which is now universally understood to embrace, not only what we used to call 'the system', but also the going ruling class if there is one, the plutocracy the conservatives and almost any other in-group that the out people envy or don't like.

Well in many rulings on that first amendment phrase, the Supreme Court has rung every possible meaning out of the word establishment, like a starving man squeezing a grapefruit, and so as the Supreme Court gets into its stride, again inevitably, it has facing it this session ,several cases that pound away at that poor old battered clause: "Make no law respecting an establishment of religion." It has already pronounced on one case, much publicised, by refusing to review the finding of a lower court and here's what it's about.

A young girl in a public school in Tennessee was required to write a paper on any topic she chose, using four or more sources. It was therefore correctly called a research paper. She chose to write about Jesus Christ. The teacher said no that wouldn't do, because the girl's strong religious beliefs would make it hard for her to approach the topic in a fresh and scholarly way. Fair enough. Not so, said the girl's parents. The girl went ahead and wrote her piece anyway and she got a zero mark. Her father complained, nothing was done and so he, in her name, sued the school board citing this time, the other balancing phrase of the first amendment: Congress shall so so so and so or abridge the freedom of speech.

The father maintained that's what had been done, her freedom of speech had been abridged. A federal district court ruled against the girl, it went up, to a circuit US court of appeals, and that court dismissed the appeal with the rather bold, I should think rather un-loyal like remark: "Learning is more vital in the classroom than free speech." As I say, the Supreme Court also dismissed the appeal so that's the end of that. Though I think we shall hear more at later times of the dogma, learning is more vital in the classroom than free speech. Wow!

Another rather grim religious case came up to the Supreme Court and will be ruled on. It's that of an 11-year-old boy who died of diabetes while he was in the care of a Christian Science nurse who, to save the boy, just prayed instead of sending for medical help. The boy's mother, the nurse and stepfather were ordered to pay one and a half million dollars in damages in a civil suit brought by the boy's natural father. But wasn't he a Christian scientist? He had been, and I imagine there would have been no suit if he'd stayed with the faith, but he renounced it and he sued. The defence are appealing on the ground that the state may not impose destructive penalties on the exercise of religion.

How about that four foot high stone monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments that we started with? The suing party this time, is something called The Freedom From Religion Foundation. It holds that displaying the Ten Commandments in a park adjacent to the Colorado state capital building is a violation of the 'no establishment of religion' clause. An intermediate court upheld that view, but the Colorado State Supreme Court overturned it saying that if the monument stood alone, there might be a problem. That the park in question has so many monuments commemorating so many historical events, that the flock of them negates any suggestion that the government is endorsing religion. So now it's up to the immortal nine – we used to call them the nine old men, but now there are seven old men and two young women. By the way, that monument was put up 40 years ago when I imagine the members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation were babes and sucklings, unaware of the daily violation of their rights in the park they were playing in.

Now if all this weren't enough, the Court does have other things on its mind. Christmas is coming and one absolutely dependable feature of Christmas in the United States, along with the snowflakes, is a flurry of law suits all across the nation, of people deeply often exclusively, concerned with that clause about an establishment of religion. For instance, there's always one group protesting the setting up of a crèche. I don't mean a day-care nursery for infants, but a model of the manger scene in Bethlehem. Put this anywhere inside a Christian Church and all is well, but set it up in the village square or on the street or one place last year in the outdoor garden of a Catholic Church and the lawyers and the lawsuits start to fly. I won't even try to dream up preposterous scenes of just things, that can be made, by a vivid imagination to express a religious idea, however grotesque or farfetched they have been thought up, and protested against.

I've recently been reminded how Europeans coming to this country for the first time, and I'm thinking of religious people, irreligious, non religious, they cannot understand why this public brawl, which has been going on for years and years over school prayer, is never settled. It was a foreigner, an agnostic incidentally, who recently sat for the first time as a visitor in the House of Representatives and came out astounded to discover that the day's proceedings started, as they always do in both Houses, with a prayer to Almighty God. How do the atheists feel about this he wanted to know, why don't they protest and when are they going to organise to abolish the pyramid and the eye of God from the dollar bill? I don't know. I suppose the standard defence is that no particular religion is being flaunted. The way they get round this at big national ceremonies, presidential nominating conventions for instance is to have a Baptist parson one day, a Rabbi the next, an Orthodox, Russian, then a Episcopalian and so on, but whoever he is, the parson will surely commit this constitutionally irreligious nation into the keeping of our Holy Father. Amen.

NOTE: The Lincoln quote is: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union."

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC

Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.