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'Ten Commandments Judge' hit with lawsuit over monument

By staff,
The Associated Press


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Public officials and civil libertarians across the country are embroiled in debates over Ten Commandments displays — and two of the disputes are headed to court.

  • In Alabama, two federal lawsuits were filed Oct. 30 seeking the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the state judicial building.
  • Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore had the 5,280-pound monument secretly moved into the building’s lobby in the middle of the night last summer without notifying other justices.

    One lawsuit, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of Montgomery lawyer Steve Glassroth, claims the monument constitutes an endorsement of religion by the state.

    The other was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. Both were filed in U.S. District Court in Montgomery.

    Moore received national attention when he was a circuit judge in Gadsden and displayed a copy of the commandments on the wall of his courtroom. His spokesman, Scott Barnett, said he had not seen the lawsuits and declined to comment.

    Both lawsuits ask the court for a permanent injunction, ordering Moore to remove the monument from the Judicial Building.

    Glassroth said he was seeking removal of the monument because he often visits the judicial building on business as an attorney.

    “We are a diverse nation, and this is a time for us to celebrate that diversity instead of to push some people away,” Glassroth said. “The monument celebrates a particular brand of religion.”

    Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said his organization’s lawsuit was also filed on behalf of Alabama attorneys who have to enter the judicial building on business.

    “We believe judges have a duty to enforce the laws of the U.S. and not religious law,” said Lynn, an attorney and a United Church of Christ minister. “It’s unfortunate Justice Moore feels it’s necessary for politicians to promote religions. I thought those of us in the clergy were doing a pretty good job.”

    Moore has said that he installed the monument because he believes the Ten Commandments were the foundation for the American system of laws.

    Since Moore installed the Ten Commandments monument, other groups have sought to put displays in the rotunda. More than 20 black legislators, led by Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery, tried unsuccessfully to place a display there honoring civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

    After that, Moore placed a plaque on the wall in the rotunda that includes quotes from King. Moore has also added a Bill of Rights plaque to the display.

    Holmes supports the lawsuits to have the Ten Commandments monument removed from the rotunda. "I think the Ten Commandments are a great thing, but the judicial building is not an appropriate place for that monument. It violates the theory of separation of church and state,” Holmes said.

  • In Pennsylvania, a group dedicated to the separation of church and state is suing Chester County officials over a Ten Commandments display at the courthouse that has been in place for decades.
  • The suit was filed by the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia and one of its members, Sally Flynn, a Chester County resident who has served as a juror in the courthouse and objects to the 50-inch-by-60-inch plaque.

    “It’s an unfortunate commentary on some of our elected leaders, who obviously see electoral benefits by doing things which are not permitted by the Constitution. But the Constitution is a document that has weathered the last 200 years, and hopefully will continue to stand the test of time, even in these trying circumstances,” said Stefan Presser, legal director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU.

    Presser filed the suit on behalf of the Freethought Society, which describes itself as a group of atheists, agnostics, humanists and others.

    The suit, filed Oct. 16 in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, names the county and Commissioners Colin A. Hanna, Karen L. Martynick and Andrew E. Dinniman, in their official capacity, as defendants.

    “The plaque stays,” said Thomas Abrahamsen, assistant solicitor for the county. He said the county would invest the time and money needed to litigate the issue. “We disagree with the basic statement of the ACLU, ... that it violates the First Amendment,” Abrahamsen said. “It’s not as simple as (that).”

    “There are arguments both ways, and there is difference of opinion, it would appear, within the judiciary,” he said.

    In May, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that refused to let an Indiana city display the Ten Commandments.

    However, Abrahamsen said a 1989 ruling by the 3rd Circuit, which includes Pennsylvania, offered a split ruling on the legality of religious holiday displays.

    The suit alleges that the Chester County plaque is inscribed with a version of the Ten Commandments from the King James version of the Bible, used by Protestants.

    “The display of the plaque constitutes a government preference for certain specific religious tenets and modes of worship — in particular, Protestantism,” the suit charges.

  • In Tennessee, Williamson County commissioners are questioning a colleague’s resolution that asks the county to support the display of the Ten Commandments.
  • Part of the legislation by Commissioner Peggy Romano requests “the God in Heaven to preserve the peace ... extended to us by our ancient acknowledgment of the Ten Commandments.”

    Romano said part of her reason for writing the resolution — which is similar to legislation considered by Maury, Cheatham, Sullivan and Knox counties — stemmed from the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

    It doesn’t call for the specific posting of the commandments, she said. “It’s just saying, ‘Don’t be afraid to do it because we morally support you,’ ” Romano said. “I believe it’s something that could be good for all of us.”

    However, her efforts have drawn criticism from several commissioners. On Oct. 29, the commission’s Education Committee voted unanimously against passage of the resolution by the full body on Nov. 13.

    “Why are we even looking at this resolution? I don’t understand this kind of thing coming before the County Commission,” Commissioner Clyde Lynch said.

    David Hudson, a research attorney with the First Amendment Center in Nashville, said the resolution could violate the separation between church and state.

    Tennessee ACLU Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said the ACLU was considering a lawsuit against Hamilton County for passing such a resolution several weeks ago.

    “You’d be surprised at the number (of county governments) who have done this,” Weinberg said. “It’s really popular legislation ... especially since Sept. 11.”

    Besides Hamilton, Johnson and Greene counties in East Tennessee and Shelby County in West Tennessee display the Ten Commandments.

  • In Florida, a pastor organizing the drive to display the Ten Commandments at the Polk County administration building says people of religions other than Judaism and Christianity need not join the effort.
  • Hindus and Muslims are not welcome on the organizing committee because their religious traditions are not part of America’s heritage, said the Rev. Mickey P. Carter, pastor of the Landmark Baptist Church in Haines City. “It’s a heritage rock, not a religious rock,” Carter said, The (Lakeland) Ledger reported Oct. 20.

    However, the Ten Commandments are a fundamental part of American history, integral to its laws and political foundations, Carter said.

    “If they want to go to India or Pakistan and put up their own rock, that’s fine,” Carter said. “We certainly don’t owe Hindus or Islam (a place on the Polk monument).”

    The County Commission voted unanimously Oct. 17 to post the commandments along with the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

    Harish Shah, a former chairman of Polk’s Indian Cultural Society and a practicing Hindu, said he would like his religion represented on such a “heritage rock.”

    But Carter said suggestions to include basic tenets from non-Judeo-Christian religions in the display are “politically correct” and unnecessarily inclusive.

    Carter has consulted with Rex Sparklin, a lawyer affiliated with the Seminole-based Christian Law Association, on the monument’s contents.

    Sparklin also supports the exclusion of non-Judeo-Christian religions on the monument, saying America’s founding fathers did not include the basic tenets of those religions into the nation’s fundamental documents as they did the Ten Commandments.

    On Oct. 18, the ACLU objected to the display, saying it violates the separation of church and state.

    “It is not constitutionally appropriate for government to endorse religious principles,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, in a statement.

    None of the dozens of attendees of the commission’s Oct. 17 meeting spoke against the idea of a display.

    “I get the distinct impression that we’re preaching to the choir,” Jerry Wilson, director of administration for the First Presbyterian Church in Lakeland, told commissioners.

    “If someone’s going to threaten us,” Commissioner Bruce Parker said, citing the ACLU specifically, “they should be able to make a pretty good argument before the Supreme Court of the United States.”


    'Ten Commandments judge' says monument doesn't endorse religion
    Roy Moore's attorneys say challenges to 5,280-pound display erroneously equate public acknowledgment of God with religious promotion.  01.10.02


    Alabama chief justice refuses to display atheist symbol alongside commandments
    Meanwhile, survey reveals nearly one-fourth of Kentucky’s counties have religious codes posted in public buildings, despite court order barring such displays in some counties.  09.11.01


    Friends, foes of commandments displays claim history is with them
    ACLU of Kentucky cites church-state separation in challenges; county officials say religious codes played role in nation's development.  01.02.02