County attorney: Ten Commandments displays aren't religious
By The Associated Press
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. Displays of the Ten Commandments in three Hamilton County court buildings are not religious but are secular reminders for citizens to obey the law, county attorneys told a federal judge yesterday.
The argument came during a trial on a lawsuit by Tennessee's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which contends the county's displays violate religious freedom and are "divisive to religious diversity."
U.S. District Judge Allan Edgar told the attorneys and an overflow crowd of spectators that he would rule "in the not too distant future" on whether the postings must be removed.
ACLU state director Hedy Weinberg has said she is unaware of any previous lawsuit on the issue going to court in the state. But the ruling could have widespread impact.
More than half of Tennessee's 95 counties have approved similar displays and more than 30 have posted the biblical laws. Washington County has had such a display for more than 80 years.
The ACLU is also challenging a Ten Commandments display in another county. Earlier this month, the ACLU and seven residents sued Rutherford County for posting the commandments in the county courthouse. Weinberg said the lawsuit challenges the posting as a violation of the separation of church and state.
The Rutherford County display, titled "The Foundation of American Law and Government," also includes reproductions of eight other historical documents ranging from the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence to the Magna Carta and the Preamble of the Tennessee Constitution.
In the Hamilton County case, Wayne Peters, a private attorney representing the county, said that because the Ten Commandments provide the historical basis for the nation's laws the displays are secular. He said displaying them in the court buildings is intended "to encourage people to obey the laws of the land."
Referring to a newspaper account that quoted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore as telling a Ten Commandments rally in Chattanooga, "It is time for Christians to take a stand," Edgar asked the Hamilton County attorneys, "Is this what the county commission is doing here by putting up the Commandments?"
The attorneys responded that there was no religious motivation for the displays.
Moore was elected Alabama chief justice two years ago on a campaign that promoted him as "Alabama's Ten Commandments judge" after he posted the biblical laws in his circuit courtroom.
Two ministers and a rabbi, all ACLU members, testified at yesterday's hearing that the displays are religious and shouldn't be in public buildings. Attorneys for the county did not call any witnesses but gave the judge sworn statements from the commissioners.
Rabbi Philip Posner testified that the King James version of the Bible that was likely a reference of the nation's founding fathers has at times "been used in a prejudicial way against the Jewish people."
Posner said government officials deciding what to display on public property shouldn't "choose a set of religious laws over another set of religious laws."
The Ten Commandments were posted in December inside the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building, the Hamilton County Courthouse and the lobby of the Hamilton County Juvenile Court building after a September vote by Hamilton County Commissioners.
Weinberg testified yesterday that the lawsuit filed on behalf of ACLU members was consistent with the organization's commitment to challenge infringements of constitutional rights.
Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers has issued an advisory opinion that says Ten Commandments displays on government property are an unconstitutional promotion of religion.
Hamilton County Commissioner Curtis Adams said during a break in the trial that no taxpayer money would be used to pay the county's legal fees. Adams said he was unsure how the costs would be covered, although the Ten Commandments-Tennessee organization has sold signs and held fund-raisers promoting the displays.
"We are not going to let the taxpayers pay one cent of this," Adams said. "We may have to go and speak in the churches."
Adams said that if the judge decides the commissioners must remove the Ten Commandments they will obey him and there will be no appeal.
"We have made a point," Adams said. "Eighty-five percent of the people in his county would vote to put them up there. You win election with 51 percent. What worries me here is the majority is not winning here."
After the commission approved the displays in the three court buildings, Hamilton County Commission Chairman Bill Hullander sent letters to ministers urging them to post the Ten Commandments in their churches.
The Rev. John Mingus Sr., a Congregational Church minister, testified that the letter was the first he has received in 34 years as a minister from a government official "saying what we [should] do in our church."
"I was deeply offended," Mingus said.
County attorneys said Hullander personally sent the letter to ministers, even though he signed it as county commission chairman.
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