Ten Commandments display
Sullivan County Courthouse
Sullivan County attorney sees nothing wrong with holding private
dedication ceremony for plaque in courthouse
Times-News Online Edition - LOCAL NEWS
Thursday Dec 16, 1999
by JOHN OSBORNE
BLOUNTVILLE - The Sullivan County Courthouse is reserved this afternoon for a dedication ceremony for an "American Heritage Documents" plaque. It is a private event, sponsored by the Sullivan Baptist Association's Christian Life Department, for those who donated money for the cast aluminum plaque - which features the Ten Commandments, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill or Rights.
A closed-door ceremony in such a public place may raise questions for some residents, but County Attorney Dan Street says it is the county's choice.
"It is a decision to be made by the county if they want to allow use of facilities for private purposes," Street said. "My first impression is I don't see why they couldn't do it." Street said the first question to be asked is whether Sullivan County has a policy in place allowing private meetings in public facilities. "You have to ask that question first," Street said. ""Once you get the answer to that question, you can move on."
Asked if the county in fact has such a policy, Street said "I don't know. I don't know if that has ever been discussed or debated." But such a policy would not necessarily have to be on file in document form, Street said. "There doesn't have to be a written policy," Street said. "There would have to have been a decision."
"I'm not going to say on that one," Street said when asked by the Times-News just who has the power to make that decision. "The law says the County Commission controls public facilities, if that answers your question." Street said allowing one group to hold a private function opens the courthouse to others.
"I don't think you could have the county allow private meetings for the Baptist group, but say no to a minority group that wanted to use the courthouse." Street said. "What you offer to one, you have to offer to all of them. What you might think is an easy policy, once you start thinking through the ramifications, becomes a very, very complicated and complex policy." As for the SBA's dedication ceremony, Street said it is his impression that the group can shut the courthouse doors once they are gathered inside.
"I don't know that the county is going to send sheriff's deputies over here to guard the doors," Street said. "No. But if the people want to close the doors - can the people who can't get in claim their civil rights were violated? No. I don't think so. It's a private meeting." Street said he would not fault the county for apparently not having a written policy.
"A lot of things when they surface they just never have been a problem before," Street said. "That's why nobody ever has a policy. When I came here myself I was shocked at the way some things were done with no guidelines. The answer I got was 'that's how it's always been done.' County government is a very informal type proceeding."
The Sullivan County Commission approved a resolution in September 1998 making courthouse space available for a heritage documents plaque. The Sullivan Baptist Association led the fund-raising effort to pay for the $4,000 plaque.
According to wording at the bottom of the plaque, it was "donated for placement in the Sullivan County Courthouse by John and Sandra Taylor in memory of their son Jonathan Wayne Taylor; by D.G. Garrett in memory of Martha R. Garrett; by the Arrington family in honor of Albert B. Arrington; and by numerous individuals, churches, and civic organizations throughout Sullivan County."
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Quoting the Kingsport Times-News (1-18-2004)
Sullivan County Tennessee attorney Dan Street on the Ten Commandments,
"It seems clearer and clearer and clearer that we are promoting a particular religion, and that's a violation of the Constitution. 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.
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. People think if you want the Ten Commandments down you're an atheist, and that's just not true.
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