Court decision puts Sullivan Ten Commandments plaque in jeopardy
update December 19, 2003
By Staff and wire report
Three Kentucky counties should not post the Ten Commandments in public buildings, even if the religious laws are accompanied by other historical documents, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
Officials with the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday afternoon that they will be contacting all Tennessee counties to request that they adhere to the ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street has said such court decisions make it more likely local officials will have to make a decision on the future of a similar display in the Sullivan County Courthouse.
McCreary and Pulaski county officials hung framed copies of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses and later added other documents, such as the Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence, after the display was challenged.
Harlan County had similar displays in its schools. In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the Court of Appeals upheld U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman's 2001 preliminary order to remove the displays until the conclusion of a lawsuit challenging their constitutionality.
Coffman said in her ruling that the purpose of displaying the Ten Commandments was "religious in nature." She said the fact that the displays began with just the Ten Commandments and only later added the other documents "bolstered the reasonable observer's perception of the state endorsement of religion."
Judge Eric Clay wrote in Thursday's majority opinion that both the schoolhouse and courthouse displays showed a religious purpose, conveying a "bald assertion" that the Ten Commandments formed the foundation of American legal tradition.
"The court has rousingly endorsed the principles of religious freedom and rousingly endorsed the requirement that government remain neutral toward religion," said David Friedman, general counsel for the ACLU of Kentucky, which filed suit to have the display taken down. "We are delighted with the opinion."
Mathew Staver, president with Liberty Counsel in Orlando, Fla., appealed Coffman's ruling on behalf of the Kentucky counties. Staver had argued that the Ten Commandments are only one part of a display of several historical documents and that they have a secular rather than a religious purpose.
In 1998, the Sullivan County Commission approved installation of a plaque featuring the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
Street, the county attorney, has said he will defend Sullivan County's display if that is what the Sullivan County Commission wants him to do. But earlier this year, Street said he didn't think it likely the display would survive a legal challenge.
"In my opinion, there is a high degree of probability that if we are challenged in court with regard to Sullivan County's display of the Ten Commandments ... we will be ordered to remove it," Street wrote in an Aug. 26 memorandum to County Mayor Richard Venable.
Street said every case challenging display of the Ten Commandments raises awareness of the issue - and increases the likelihood Sullivan County will have to make a decision on whether to fight a call to remove its plaque.
"The noose seems to tighten more in every case that comes down,"' Street told the Times-News in August. Each court ruling against such a display is "a loss for people wanting to hang the Ten Commandments," Street said. "It's becoming clearer and clearer and clearer you can't do that."
Copyright 2003 Kingsport Times-News.
Quoting the Kingsport Times-News (1-18-2004)
"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.