Push for Ten Commandments displays gains momentum in South
By The Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. Charles Wysong believes God has stirred a fight in Tennessee.
As president of Ten Commandments-Tennessee, Wysong wants to see the biblical laws posted in public places throughout the state. He vows his organization will pay all the legal expenses for defending three displays in Hamilton County.
June Griffin, meanwhile, has traveled the state for five years in her 1993 Pontiac, trying to persuade commissioners in all of Tennessee's 95 counties to display the Ten Commandments in public buildings. More than half of the state's counties do so.
Wysong and Griffin each represent a growing movement, inspired in part by the Columbine school shootings and bolstered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that aims to have the Ten Commandments posted on government property.
"I think what is happening in this country is we're finding out we cannot run this country without a moral code from God," Wysong said.
Supporters see their efforts as a way of encouraging morality and showing that U.S. law is grounded in biblical law, but civil liberties groups view Ten Commandments campaigns as an affront to the nation's fundamental principles.
The debate is muddied by conflicting opinions among Supreme Court justices as to whether the displays violate the Constitution's ban of government promotion of religion.
As the justices argue, lawmakers primarily in the South continue to vote in favor of displaying the Ten Commandments.
The Alabama Legislature is considering a constitutional amendment to allow public schools to display them. The North Carolina Legislature approved a law last year allowing school districts to show historical documents, including the Ten Commandments.
In Tennessee, more than a dozen counties have approved Ten Commandments displays in the last year, but others have had them up for years. Washington County in northeast Tennessee, for example, has had them on display for more than 80 years.
One of the latest to follow the trend was Sumner County, near Nashville, which voted last month to post the Ten Commandments in the county administration building, along with the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence.
"Those Ten Commandments provide the foundational basis for law in the United States, and I don't think anyone would deny that the framers of the Constitution relied on their knowledge of the Bible and the Ten Commandments," Sumner County Commissioner Frank Freels said.
"All laws that we have in one form or another can be traced back to the Ten Commandments."
But Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, believes the displays put the government in the position of choosing between religions.
"Unfortunately there are communities within our state who, rather than celebrating religious diversity and religious freedom, want to use government to promote particular religious doctrine," she said.
"Of all times, this is a time to unite, and instead we see efforts to divide."
The ACLU sued Hamilton County in January over its three displays, and trial is set for April 29. The group also has legal challenges pending in Kentucky, Alabama and Ohio.
"It's a dangerous thing when politicians attempt to co-opt religion for their own selfish agenda," said the Rev. Roland Johnson Jr., pastor of Phillips Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Chattanooga. Johnson is a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit against Hamilton County.
Adding weight to the ACLU's legal argument is an opinion issued last week by Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers deeming Ten Commandments displays on government property an unconstitutional promotion of religion.
Summers' opinion, however, hasn't stopped some counties from deciding to display the commandments.
The Bedford County Board of Commissioners voted April 9 to allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in the county courthouse and other public buildings.
The Tennessee Committee for the Advancement of the Ten Commandments advised the commission's courthouse and property committee that posting the commandments would be legal as part of a display of historic documents.
But Summers' opinion mentions a Kentucky case where this type of display was still found to be religious, not secular, and in violation of the Constitution.
TCATC representatives had said that Orlando, Fla.-based Liberty Counsel would help to defend Bedford County if suits were filed over the posting of the commandments, especially if the ACLU was involved.
TCATC plans to provide the framed documents, which will be displayed through private contributions.
Meanwhile, prompted by the growing interest among county commissions across the state to display the commandments, members of an interdenominational organization of clergy gathered April 9 in Nashville at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School to show their opposition to the movement.
The right places to display the commandments are in the homes and churches of those who believe in the biblical laws not in public buildings, said Rabbi Kenneth Kantor, president of the Covenant Association, which represents about 60 Middle Tennessee congregations.
"They are not simply an American document. They go beyond that," Kantor said.
At the Davidson County Courthouse, there already is an etching of Moses holding the commandments on one window. Nonetheless, councilman Ron Nollner filed a resolution April 9 permitting displays in other county buildings.
Nollner noted that many of the commandments, such as the well-known "Thou shall not steal," already have been incorporated into U.S. laws.
Covenant Association leaders agree the commandments are an important part of living a moral life. But they argue such displays are at odds with the Constitution's fundamental guarantee of freedom of religion and are insensitive to those who don't believe in the commandments or any religion.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled that posting the Ten Commandments in schools amounted to an unconstitutional promotion of religion. The high court chose not to take up the issue in February when it rejected an appeal from Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon, who wanted to display a 7-foot stone monument of the Ten Commandments at the state Capitol.
But the justices were at odds when last May they passed on considering a dispute over a Ten Commandments display in front of the Elkhart, Ind., Municipal Building.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in a dissent joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, argued the case should have been heard. He noted a wall carving of Moses in the justices' courtroom signals "respect not for great proselytizers, but for great lawgivers."
Douglas Kmiec, dean of the Catholic University Law School in Washington, expects the high court will eventually take up the debate.
"The court is increasingly saying that the government should not be hostile to religion ... even when that private religious belief manifests itself in the public square," he said.
That gives hope to crusaders such as Griffin, 62, who is also a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee.
"Our nation is in the sewer and the way you get out of the sewer is to begin with the definition of sin so that the people know what it is," she said. "They don't know what sin is now. The Bible gives you the definition of sin. Thou shalt not steal, that piques your conscious."
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