High Court Ruling May Nix Display at Sullivan County Courthouse
By J.H. OSBORNE
BLOUNTVILLE - A local courthouse display of "historical documents" may itself be history soon, thanks to a ruling Monday from the nation's highest court. Or maybe not.
Sullivan County officials, immersed in a budget discussion and vote most of the morning, hadn't had a lot of time to digest what the Supreme Court's Ten Commandments ruling does or does not mean for a plaque in the courthouse lobby. It was installed a few years ago, paid for by private donations, and in addition to the Ten Commandments features the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights - thus the concept of a "historical documents" setting.
Talk of the Supreme Court ruling began to filter through the courthouse just as the County Commission adjourned near noon. County Mayor Richard Venable said he will be working with County Attorney Dan Street and members of the Sullivan County Commission to see what options, if any, are available in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling.
Street has said, personal feelings aside, he thinks the local display closely matches the type of displays declared unconstitutional by the high court. After lower courts ruled similarly, some county commissioners took the position of "wait and see if anyone challenges." Street said county government should uphold the law and not force one or more citizens to have to fight for the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
"I don't really understand why they wait for someone to challenge it," Street said. "Why require somebody to challenge it? It causes people to have to stand up for their constitutional rights, which should not be required. Why require someone to challenge it? Do they want to see who it is? Do they want to see if it's a man or a woman? Or if they're black or white or if it's an atheist or a Christian or a Jew?"
Venable said there is some "wiggle room" in the ruling from the Supreme Court based on early national news reports he'd had time to review. Venable said any action concerning the local display would have to be instigated by the County Commission. That group voted to allow the display and therefore would have to vote to take it down or relocate it.
Venable said there may be other options to allow those who support display of the historical documents to enjoy their right to do so. He didn't mention specifics. But the Supreme Court's ruling seems to permit inclusion of the Ten Commandments in outdoor displays.
"I feel like we've got to follow what the Supreme Court orders," said Commissioner Ralph Harr. "We'd have anarchy if we didn't. It's not what I want personally. I think we'll take them down." "It's the people's courthouse," said Commissioner John Crawford. "It should be left up to the people. If the people want it there, it should be there."
Commissioner Elliott Kilgore also voiced a need to follow the law but said removing the plaque is not what most county residents want. "The majority of people in Sullivan County would like to see it stay," said Kilgore. "It's not harming anyone."
Venable said it is significant that the local display was brought about by community involvement. "Above all, I know the commission will consider the law," Venable said.
Published: June 27, 2005
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.