Sullivan advised to remove Ten Commandments plaque

Sunday, January 18, 2004

By KEISHA BRUCE

BLOUNTVILLE - Saying he fears it violates the U.S. Constitution, Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street has recommended the County Commission take down the Ten Commandments plaque that now hangs in the courthouse.

Street said a recent court ruling by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Tennessee, led him to write a letter to County Mayor Richard Venable advising that Sullivan County likely would lose if the issue went to court.

Venable said the plaque will remain until it is legally challenged.

"My position is the resolution passed by the previous County Commission to put those up is effective county law," Venable said. "I'm certainly not going to remove it, and I don't have the authority to override the previous commission," he added.

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historical-documents approach taken by Sullivan County as well as policies that allow citizens to request that other historical documents be posted.

Sullivan County's display - which includes the Ten Commandments, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence - was placed in the courthouse in 1998. The county 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. "The one little thing I thought we may hang our hat on didn't do the Kentucky school district any good," he said.

But Venable said the details of each case are different, and he thinks the dialogue used in Sullivan County's resolution to display the Ten Commandments could set its case, if ever there is one, apart from others. If a suit is filed, Venable noted, the commission would have ample time to decide whether it wanted to take the issue to trial.

"I suspect that my County Commission would like to have its day in court," he added. Street wrote to Venable that other than the Supreme Court, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals is the highest authority of federal law for Sullivan County, so using the court's ruling as a legal guidepost indicates that the plaque violates the Constitution.

"If we assume it's unconstitutional, then it's the approach of 'We're not going to take it down until we're forced to,'" Street said. "What type of approach is that for a governmental institute to take?"

That was one question Street posed to Venable in a letter written Wednesday. Venable had asked for Street's advice on what costs would be involved if the issue ever went to court. "If Sullivan County waits until the Ten Commandments are challenged, does it not appear that Sullivan County has been forced to obey the United States Constitution? Should we have to be forced? How can Sullivan County expect citizens to voluntarily comply with laws in a timely fashion if Sullivan County refuses to do so?" Street wrote.

"There's just a lot more going on than just to respond and say in simple terms 'This is the exposure, this is what it would cost,'" Street said of his letter. "If I didn't think it was important, I wouldn't have put it in there. I felt the commissioners needed to look at a bigger picture.

"There's more to this question than just cash." At least one commissioner thinks Street is making an issue out of something that is not a problem. The people of Sullivan County want the Ten Commandments displayed, said Mark Vance. "I think the people elected me to represent them," Vance said. "That should be what the county attorney stands on too."

Vance said the two people who have voiced opinions against the Ten Commandments plaque live outside the county, and he hasn't heard from a single county resident who wants it taken down. "If there was 51 percent of the people saying they wanted them down, then I would have to represent the majority of the people," he said. But Street said when it comes to the Constitution, majority doesn't rule.

"It seems clearer and clearer and clearer that we are promoting a particular religion, and that's a violation of the Constitution," he said. "The Constitution is the one document that protects minorities, and just because most people feel the Christian faith or the Jewish faith is the right faith, that doesn't mean they have a right to impose it on everyone else."

Street added that there are plenty of Christians and Jews who may follow the Ten Commandments but don't believe they should be displayed in public buildings. Most of the time, however, those people don't come forward with their opinion because they are afraid of being chastised, he said. "People think if you want the Ten Commandments down you're an atheist, and that's just not true," he said.

Vance said county residents are encouraged to voice their opinion, regardless of what that may be. "That is the people's courthouse," he said.

2003 Kingsport Times-News.


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