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Ten Commandments plaque ordered out of Pennsylvania courthouse

By The Associated Press


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Editor's note: A plastic shroud was placed over the Ten Commandments plaque in the Chester County Courthouse April 22 after U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell ordered that the plaque be covered. Dalzell ruled April 8 that the display could remain in the courthouse but must be hidden from view while officials appeal his order to remove it. Meanwhile, the American Center for Law and Justice filed an appeal May 20 on behalf of the city of Plattsmouth, asking the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf's ruling.

PHILADELPHIA — A federal judge has ordered the removal of an 82-year-old Ten Commandments plaque from the Chester County Courthouse, calling it an unconstitutional display of the biblical text.

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

"The tablet's necessary effect on those who see it is to endorse or advance the unique importance of this predominantly religious text for mainline Protestantism," U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote in a decision released yesterday.

The judge ordered county officials to remove the plaque and permanently enjoined them from putting it back up.

Meanwhile in a dispute over the religious codes in Nebraska, the Plattsmouth City Council voted unanimously on March 4 to appeal a federal judge's ruling that a Ten Commandments monument must be removed from display in a city park.

"Basically, the will that we've got from the citizens of Plattsmouth is that this is something they want to stay there," said City Administrator John Winkler. "We haven't had one dissenting opinion, outside of the person who filed the lawsuit."

The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a Plattsmouth atheist. It alleged that the monument fails to maintain a proper separation between church and state.

The monument lists the Ten Commandments and also is emblazoned with two Stars of David, which are symbols of the Jewish faith.

U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf of Lincoln on Feb. 19 rejected Plattsmouth's argument that the monument, which has been around for 36 years, hasn't hurt anyone and should be protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom.

"The city has not presented any evidence that negates the overwhelming religious nature of the monument," Kopf said. "It conveys a message that Christianity and Judaism are favored religions."

The ruling in the Pennsylvania case was a victory for the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia and one of its members, Sally Flynn, a longtime county resident who has served as a juror in the courthouse and objected to the 50-inch-by-39-inch bronze plaque.

"It is undisputed that (Flynn) is an atheist. She finds the tablet unwelcome every time she passes by it, and has often taken steps to avoid seeing it," Dalzell wrote.

Dalzell's ruling came after a two-day trial that included testimony from theological scholars and members of the Freethought Society, which describes itself as a group of atheists, agnostics, humanists and others.

"Obviously, we're enormously pleased that a gift that was given to us 200 years ago — that each person is free to find their own religious path, or to turn from religion — is being reaffirmed today," said Stefan Presser, legal director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU, which represented the plaintiffs.

Attorneys for the county had argued that the Ten Commandments have both a secular and religious place in history, and couldn't reasonably be considered offensive.

County officials said they would consider an appeal.

"Our display of the Ten Commandments plaque is entirely consistent with the original intent" of the First Amendment, said County Commissioner Colin A. Hanna.

The plaque was posted at the entrance to the courthouse in West Chester, about 25 miles west of Philadelphia, in 1920 by a private group, the Council of Religious Education of West Chester.

Since 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Lemon v. Kurtzman, federal courts are required to use a three-part test in judging church-state cases.

The test says a law or a government practice is invalid if it does not have a secular purpose, if it primarily promotes religion or fosters "excessive entanglement" with religion.

Dalzell noted that five sitting Supreme Court justices have been harshly critical of the test, which was devised by a more liberal Supreme Court. But he said he was obliged to use its methodology until the Supreme Court instructs otherwise.

Federal courts across the nation have reached different conclusions in Ten Commandments cases, some allowing government displays, others forbidding it. Last week, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal from Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon, who wanted permission to place a 7-foot stone monument on the grounds of the state Capitol.

The Ten Commandments contain both religious and secular directives, including the familiar proscriptions against stealing, killing and adultery. The Bible says God gave the list to Moses.


Federal judge sides with atheist in dispute over Ten Commandments
Court rejects Nebraska city's argument that monument in city park hasn't hurt anyone and should be protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom.  02.20.02

Supreme Court refuses to clear up confusion over Ten Commandments display
Justices turn away appeal from Indiana governor who wanted permission to erect 7-foot monument on state Capitol grounds.  02.26.02

3 judges order Ten Commandments displays taken down
But another judge in Tennessee county says he'll leave religious codes in courtroom until ordered to remove them.  02.23.02

Maryland teen questions commandments monument in city park
Student's letter prompts debate over whether Frederick officials should remove stone tablet.  05.16.02