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Ten Commandments Sullivan County Tennessee Courthouse
Ten Commandments Sullivan County Tennessee Courthouse

Sullivan commissioners should remove plaque

01/12/2004 editorial Kingsport Times-News

When the lawsuit comes - and it is only a matter of time - Sullivan County commissioners should remove a Ten Commandments plaque from the county courthouse unless private sources pay the cost of defending its placement.

Some six years ago in this space we applauded officials in Washington County who pledged to keep a plaque containing the Ten Commandments on the front of the county courthouse at Jonesborough, despite the objections of a local atheist. The plaque had been in place for more than 70 years and was an integral part of the historic character of the building.

But that's not the case with the Sullivan County plaque which was placed in 1998 in a clear violation of the Separation Clause.

Then-Commissioner Mike Gonce, who introduced the measure, said his colleagues should "send a clear signal that Sullivan County doesn't lie down for atheists." We bring that bit of history up to make the point that motivations matter. It is one thing to resist the removal of chiseled text from a public building - regardless what it says - when it is a historic part of that building. Various religious quotes have adorned all manner of public buildings for decades, even centuries.

But it is quite another to use the Ten Commandments, as some Sullivan County commissioners did, as a taunt to unbelievers or a provocation to legal action, much less to post them only to advance a particular religious viewpoint.

Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street has sent a memo to county commissioners saying he fears the plaque violates the U.S. Constitution and should be removed. Street worries a recent ruling by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals shows Sullivan County would likely lose if its plaque was challenged. County Mayor Richard Venable says the plaque will remain until it is legally challenged.

The Court of Appeals ordered three counties in Kentucky to remove Ten Commandments displays from public buildings. Street says the case was unique in that it addressed the historical documents approach taken by Sullivan County as well as policies that allow citizens to request other historical documents be posted.

Sullivan County's display of the Ten Commandments, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence also allows for people to request that other documents be posted, which Street said he thought might be a saving grace for counties trying to defend their displays. Venable says details of each case are different and the dialogue used in Sullivan County's resolution to display the Ten Commandments could set its case apart. In such a case, Venable notes that the commission would have ample time to decide whether it wanted to take the issue to trial.

Venable's reticence to remove the Ten Commandments plaque when it has yet to be challenged by anyone with the legal standing to do so is certainly understandable. But sooner or later, a legal challenge will come. All it takes is one aggrieved person and the court system will take it from there, with taxpayers footing the bill.

Venable implies that at such a crisis point, county commissioners would have the ability to carefully weigh the pros and cons of fighting or capitulating. While that's possible in the abstract, as a practical political matter, it's hardly likely. It was, after all, an entirely emotional set of circumstances not calm consideration of constitutional principles, which caused the Ten Commandments plaque to be placed. The decision by a previous commission was, in its origin, little more than political grand standing.

And, ironically, it tended to denigrate the very religious symbol it meant to promote. Many commissioners - not to mention many of their constituents - may honestly wonder what all the fuss is about. But would they feel the same if they lived in a region where the predominant religion was Buddhism? Or Islam? What if a majority of the County Commission were Muslims and voted to place the principal teachings of the prophet Mohammed around the walls? Or what if they were Buddhists, and passed a resolution to place a bronze image of Buddha in the county courthouse?

It is precisely because our Constitution prohibits government sanction of any religion that America has avoided the religious wars that throughout history have killed millions and destroyed nations.

In this country, no matter our ethnicity or faith, we have equal rights. Were that not so, America would not stand today. Mayor Venable and Sullivan County commissioners should know that. Six years ago, a previous commission surely knew in resolving that a plaque containing the Ten Commandments be placed in a government building that they were endorsing a particular religious philosophy and violating the spirit and letter of the law.

But they lacked the backbone to vote against it because they were apparently afraid they would be painted as somehow godless.

The Sullivan County Commission can wait, with fingers crossed, and hope that no one files suit against the display. The better and certainly more responsible course would be to remove the plaque now, not because of any external legal threat but simply because it's the right thing to do.

Copyright 2004, Kingsport Publishing Corporation.